#56

THE ‘ETHICS’ BEHIND EMBRYONIC STEM CELL RESEARCH

It seems like tons of scientific papers have been written since a relatively obscure American researcher first demonstrated in 1998 the capability of manipulating stem cells - then collected exclusively from human embryonic tissue. In this first of two articles on this topic, I propose to examine the ethical ramifications of this research in the context of established eternal truths which the Holy Father often makes the object of his moral teachings.

It is often difficult to counter the emotional arguments of people afflicted by various ailments which they believe might some day be cured by embryonic stem cell research. This is what makes objections to it so intimidating, in the face of pleas from high profile entertainers such as diabetes victim Mary Tyler-Moore, spinal cord paraplegic Christopher Reeves, and Parkinson`s sufferer Michael Fox, to relentlessly pursue this research which, they have been led to believe, will shortly provide a cure to those suffering these and other debilitating afflictions. But compassion cannot shield proponents of embryonic cell research from the simple but realistic principle that sacrificing one form of human life to benefit another, no matter how noble the motivation, is intrinsically evil. That is why the Pope has unequivocally condemned creating embryos for research or dealing with any embryo in a way not meant to benefit that embryo.

Our belief originates from a profound respect for the inviolability of life as it exists in every human being from its very fragile beginning at conception to natural death. No amount of rationalization can change the fact that the living human embryo is a human subject - equal in immeasurable value to each and everyone of us. That minuscule cluster of cells has a clearly defined identity and is in possession of its own co-ordinated, continuous and gradual development, and is far from just a mere cluster of cells, as some influential bioethicists would lead us to believe. It would therefore follow, if human embryo researchers accept as scientists the biological definition of independent life, that even the most primitive embryo has a inalienable right to its own existence. From an objective as well as scientific point of view, dismembering an embryo is no different actually from dismembering a baby ... pulling its legs and arms and body parts off.

A basic principle of humanity is that each person must be treated as an end in himself, not as a means to improve someone else's life. Any society that stops thinking this way is not likely to be very humane, as recent past history shockingly reminds us. Embryonic stem cell research, despite any regulation put on it, will unquestionably be a step toward the commercialization of human life. We as Knights, therefore, need to reaffirm that the use of every human being, even a newly conceived one, as a commodity is never morally acceptable.

Scientists conducting experiments on embryos euphemistically refer to it as "research." The procedure, however, as gross as this may sound, should be described more accurately as "technical cannibalism." It is crucial for people to realize that the only way to get embryonic stem cells is to literally tear apart living human embryos. None less than the highly influential National Bioethics Advisory Commission, created by former President Clinton, is on record as saying that the U.S. National Institute of Health is operating under a "mistaken notion" that scientists can use stem cells while distancing themselves from how the cells are obtained - in fact, the same argument used by researchers at Canadian Dalhousie University to justify their use of fetal brain cells to treat Parkinson`s. It is extremely important for Canadians and Americans to understand that, when breakthroughs in disease treatment are finally achieved, the country has not paid the price of progress with our most precious ethical principles.

To realize how we are already poised to sacrifice current ethical principles, we need only look at a working group of the federal Canadian Institute of Health Research which last March gave its blessing to tax-funded technical cannibalism of embryos under two weeks old. The group makes the startling claim to occupy the moral "middle ground" in declaring that human embryos have a "special moral status" requiring they be respected, but allowing them to be killed if it would benefit others. To even the most ethically challenged Canadians, these ethics are depraved, especially when a growing mountain of scientific evidence suggests there are less troubling and more promising alternatives to destroying human embryos (more about this in my next article).

The specious argument overarching the whole embryonic stem cell ethical debate is that the embryos used will benefit mankind. Well, there are many things which would do that. But we can`t do everything that benefits mankind if we`re going to be hurting someone on the way. This principle tells us that it is impossible to deliberately destroy a human embryo in an ethical manner. As has already been stated, it surely follows that it is a mistaken idea that scientists can use embryonic stem cells and still dissociate themselves from how the cells are obtained. Also, many in the academic research community think that they can do whatever experiments they feel like doing in reproductive technology because they do it with "private funds." It`s a defence that can only be called pure academic sleaze.

Embryonic tissue researchers and their supporters also argue that the embryos sought for research, if not experimented on, will "remain unused" and often be destroyed. But the point is that human beings ought to be neither "used" nor deliberately destroyed. The media, overwhelmingly supportive of this idea, can be extremely blunt about their attitude towards embryos used for research. Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley writes, "I would find a funeral service for a blastocyst [a six-day-old embryo] grotesque." However, most miscarriages do not occasion funerals either; and presumably editor Bartley would not deny that what miscarriages end are tiny human lives.

Those calling for the full legalization of so-called "therapeutic" research find it a tragedy to mix concerns regarding embryonic research with other legitimate debates like those on abortion or euthanasia. Such advocates of embryonic research say that opponents of this research insist that the human embryo is a "potential human being." That is not true. A being is either human or it is not. Even the single-cell human zygote differs demonstrably in its essence from all other zygotes. It is indeed (and not merely potentially) a human being. This is a verifiable fact not denied by any scientist in the field, except it seems these days by ambitious stem cell researchers.

In denying the humanity of the human zygote and embryo one crosses a moral and cultural Rubicon. Some years ago, a Nobel laureate well-known for his work in DNA research was featured in Prism magazine, an elite publication of the American Medical Association, in which he speculated that because of eugenic considerations we should perhaps wait for a two or three week period after birth before accepting the new one into the human species; and some ethicists agree. The US court that calls itself "Supreme" once decided with the implicit consent of its medical and scientific intelligentsia that Americans of African lineage were not people, but property to be bought and owned. Do we really want to confer on an "enlightened" few secular humanist scientists the power to decide arbitrarily who is and who in not a human being? Think about this, Brother Knights. And think about it carefully.

Likewise, pseudo-bioethics commissions (are there any real ones anymore?) say harvesting of stem cells from surplus embryos is like taking organs from accident victims and using them for transplants. This is a false argument. You don't use organs from executed people to save the lives of other people even if those organs are going to waste. Society doesn't want embryos, including those immorally created through in vitro fertilization to help a couple give birth, to become part of a biotech value chain. It must also worry about creating a potential market for embryonic tissue in much the same way men and women today buy and sell their semen and ovarian eggs.

Unfortunately, by capitalizing as we`ve seen on the fame of some severely incapacitated movie icons, advocates of stem cell research have skillfully worked to replace the image of the unborn child in people`s mind - especially in legislators' minds - with the image of a famous patient, desperate for a cure. That effort received a particular big boost when the actors already mentioned above agreed to lobby Congress and lawmakers to allow exploitation of human embryos. Unwilling to face the moral dilemma inherent in research involving stem cell studies, defenders of embryo experimentation have distorted the language rather than trouble their consciences and cite the fantastic possibilities that stem cells seem to promise - cures for spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's Disease, among other wonders. The look of the vacant eyes of an adored parent with Alzheimer's or the sight of a paralysed child walking again, are powerful pictures that trump the unborn who is described as a cluster of undifferentiated cells due to be discarded anyway - a small price indeed to pay for the health and welfare of countless thousands.

Will we now allow ourselves to be put in the position of treating these tiny human beings as mere property, who can be scavenged and cannibalized for spare parts for other people? Do we want to create a Frankensteinian research path that will inevitably create a huge demand for human embryos? Are Canada and the United States going to be better off having that sort of thing done with scarce federal funds? These, I would think, are all very pertinent questions for every Knight to be asking himself at this time of grave moral crisis.

Western society is so mesmerized by the inflated potential benefits of embryonic tissue in eliminating debilitating diseases and growing organs for transplantation that it appears oblivious to fact that it is hurtling toward a Brave New World at warp speed in a vehicle without brakes. "Man gets used to everything -- the beast!" states Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky`s novel Crime and Punishment. There are some things humanity cannot get used to without jeopardizing its humanness -- without becoming beastly. To deny the value of some class of human beings, as many do in the case of the embryo, the fetus, the unborn child - whatever we want to call the tiniest possible person - is nothing but bigotry and barbarism. We've spent the past 30 years or so perfecting the art of non-thinking about abortion. It now looks like we`re applying the techniques learned to bioethics.

My next reflection on the topic of human stem cell will deal with the science behind current research.

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Thaddée Renault

New Brunswick, Canada


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