Last week’s announcement by a team of South Korean scientists that they have successfully cloned human embryos for stem cell research represents a major advance in what is likely to be one of the 21st century’s most profound scientific discoveries that could ultimately lead to the development of extremely powerful medical treatments. There are, however, many people, particularly in America, who are deeply troubled by the destruction of embryos that is required for this work. Shortly after the South Korean announcement, President Bush promised to veto any bills calling for increased embryonic stem cell research.
The main moral argument against the use of embryonic stem cells is essentially the same as that used against abortion. For those who believe that life begins at conception, an embryo is morally equivalent to a human being. Therefore, the destruction of an embryo, even for the purpose of finding cures for terrible human diseases, is wrong because taking a human life is wrong. Just as with abortion, where people are free to choose not to have one, people may one day choose not to partake in medicine derived from embryonic stem cell research. On a recent program on NPR, for example, David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, went so far as to say that he would not use medicine that originated from embryonic stem cell research, even if his life or the life of his loved ones were at stake.
Putting aside the quandary that this might pose if indeed one of his grandchildren could one day benefit from stem cell medicine, Dr. Stevens expressed no similar concern for medicine derived from animal research. This is problematic; Dr. Stevens would prefer medicine derived through the pain and suffering of extremely sentient beings (primates), but not through the destruction of an embryo that has no nervous system and no sense of identity. While no doubt an embryo is a potential human being, people who take Dr. Stevens’s position appear to believe that potential sentience and consciousness is more valuable than actual sentience and consciousness.
The overwhelming majority of Americans do not believe an embryo is equivalent to a human being. (Look at it this way: how many Americans do you think would choose to save 2 embryos in a Petri dish over 1 living human baby?). Yet the federal standards as they currently stand represent the views of a small minority (such as Dr. Stevens). This minority is completely entitled to its views, but in fact is currently imposing these views on the rest of society.
Stem cell research, as the Koreans have shown, is going to progress; the question we Americans face is whether we are going to be part of this revolution. Many American scientists express frustration that advancements that could be made here in the U.S. are instead occurring overseas. Given the huge medical and economic stakes, there is legitimate reason for concern.
Those who firmly believe that human life, even at its cellular origins, is precious cannot be dismissed; nor can anyone who is trying to live a morally upstanding life according to their principles. Stem cell research confronts these types of people with a moral dilemma: if they condone embryos for use in medicine, their argument against abortion is weakened.
All of this raises serious existential and metaphysical questions. We are who we are due to the very small chance that one unique sperm met one unique egg. Remember, you wouldn’t be you if your parents had conceived on a different day! In essence, we have all won a cosmic lottery with the lowest possible odds. And while we bask in our good fortune, Mother Nature destroys hundreds of millions of human embryos each year through natural miscarriages. In addition, millions of women choose to abort embryos that they do not want to see develop into full human beings for any number of reasons. Whether we like it or not, chance and human agency both have a lot to do with which human beings actually come into this world. Some people are uncomfortable with this, and that’s understandable; it’s a hard thing to acknowledge and accept. However, it is reality, and this is one realm where there aren’t easy black and white answers as to what is moral and what is not.
Sentience and identity may be more valuable and reasonable yardsticks for discussing these moral quandaries, for they allow a spectrum of responses instead of a binary “right or wrong.” In the realm of embryonic stem cell research (as well as early term abortions) we are destroying a life form before it has any capacity to feel or think. While this is regrettable, it is acceptable from an ethical standpoint if you accept that actual life, not potential life is what we hold dearest. This is especially true if the benefits are life saving medicines, or the ability of women to control their own destinies.
P.S. Richard Cohen in the Washington Post has an excellent op-ed on this issue: click here.