Thus far we know the following. Medical science has determined that stem cells posses the potential of being altered into other kinds of cells. This could potentially make them useful in curing various kinds of diseases.
The controversy arises over the source from which these cells are harvested. One possible source are mature stem cells obtained from adults. This extraction does not harm the donor. The drawback is, however, that it is believed it may not be possible to manipulate mature stem cells into becoming the different kinds of cells doctors and scientists may need to treat all the conditions begging for medical attention.
On the other hand, it has been suggested that stem cells obtained from embryos may be a more fruitful source. These may prove easier to alter since they have not yet matured. The main drawback, however, is that the embryo must be destroyed in order to obtain the stem cells for research and experimentation.
This debate has become one of the foremost issues in contemporary American politics as both sides make a number of compelling ethical claims. On the one hand, advocates of embryonic stem cell research often suffer from afflictions those of reasonably good health cannot possibly understand at this given point in our lives. It is only natural that they and their loved ones would want research into what could be the most effective cure. Yet on the other hand, there are concerns about the destiny of the embryo from which the stem cells are taken since the fertilized egg is a self-contained genetically distinct living human organism.
The foremost ethical principle bearing on this dispute is the sanctity of human life. Interestingly, in this case the principle is being invoked by both sides of the debate. Thus, one almost needs the wisdom of Solomon in attempting to apply the concept in a judicious manner.
Since the suffering are beings made in the image of God, medical science does have a duty to do what it can to ease the misery of the profoundly ill. That said though, society in general and the medical establishment in particular must go out of its way to defend innocent human life that cannot protect itself.
It is against the law to destroy an eagle egg which is essentially an unborn eagle. Then why should it then be permissible to kill an unborn child since it is a principle Biblical in origin traditionally accepted throughout Western society that a human being is infinitely more valuable than any animal? For if His eye is on the sparrow, then I know He’s watching me.
Furthermore, with all the efforts by activists lobbying for funding for embryonic stem cell research, it is doubtful that most of the public is being told the entire picture regarding these developments in medical science.
According to columnist Charles Krauthammar, who is himself a paraplegic and a trained physician, in a column from October 15, 2004 titled “Anything to get elected” posted at Townhall.com claims of those such as John Kerry and John Edwards that hold out the hope of such miracle cures only if Americans vote for the right candidates, “In my 25 years in Washington, I have never seen a more loathsome display of demagoguery.” Krauthammar goes on to point out that it could be another generation before scientists are anywhere close to finding a cure for paralysis and that NIH stem cell researcher Ronald McKay has admitted that “stem cells as an Alzheimer’s cure are a fiction but that people need a fairytale.”
Furthermore, even if embryonic stem cells prove more malleable than their adult counterparts, we might not like the results. According to a LifeNews.com story by Steven Ertelt titled “Embryonic Stem Cell Research Causes Tumors”, University of Rochester researchers found that, while stem cells injected into the brains of rats to ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s did help a number of the rodents, a number of the cells began growing in a manner that would have led to tumors.
Apart from the harm that might befall the recipients of the procedure, it would still remain morally dubious even if it returned the patients to robust health and vitality. Writing in another column entitled “Stem Cell Miracle?: An Advance This Side Of Bush’s Moral Line” appearing in the January 12, 2007 Washington Post, Charles Krauthammar admits that, even though he himself supports abortion and does not believe life begins at conception, he is leery of what may result should some kind of restriction not be placed on embryonic research. Krauthammar warns, “You don’t need religion to tremble at the thought of unrestricted embryo research. You simply have to have a healthy respect for the human capacity for doing evil in pursuit of the good. Once we have taken the position of many stem cell advocates that embryos are discardable tissue with no more intrinsic value than a hangnail, then the barriers are down. What is to prevent us from producing not just tissues and organs but humanlike organisms for preservation as a source of future body parts on demand?”
This possibility has been explored in a number of imaginative contexts such as “Gene Rodenberry’s: Earth Final Conflict”, where one episode depicted human bodies not quite allowed to develop consciousness kept in a state similar to suspended animation until their organs were needed. In “The Island” starring Ewan MacGregor, clones were kept in a guarded facility until their parts were needed by their genetic progenitors.
The fundamental guiding principle of medicine is to do no harm. That lofty ideal ought to apply to both the patient seeking services as well as the individual from which the cure could very well be extracted.
By Frederick Meekins