Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Stem Cell Research

The House approved a stem cell research bill, with the vote being 238 to 194, which is less than the two-thirds majority needed to override the President's promised veto.

The President is against embryonic stem cell research, as it will destroy the embryo. He is advocating for more research using adult stem cells. The problem with this is that there is a significant difference between embryonic and adult cells. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can develop into any other cell in the human body. Adult stem cells are multipotent, meaning that they are specialized; a skin cell will only be skin.

Pluripotent stem cells have the potential to treat or cure Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, spinal cord injuries and burns by replacing diseased or damaged cells with healthy cells. For this potential to be realized, much more research needs to be done.

This costly research is being done, but only in the private sector. The bill that passed the House expands federally funded research. As our tax dollars are now involved in this issue, and a showdown with the President seems unavoidable, the time has arrived for a public discussion.

At first glance, the ethical considerations seem rather obvious. There are two sources for pluripotent stem cells; embryos discarded by in vitro fertilization clinics and aborted fetuses. In regards to the first, surplus embryos are discarded on a regular basis. If they are never to be implanted anyway, why it is unethical to use them for research makes little sense to me. Regarding the latter, the use of an aborted fetus would seem to be no different than using any other cadaver, regardless of your position on abortion.

So, why do some object to this research? I think it is the potential for this to be seen as a slippery slope; that if such research is allowed, it won't be long until such cells will be intentionally "harvested," and our respect for human life will take another step backwards.

On the other hand, if only the private sector is allowed to continue this research, the cost will limit the benefits of such research to those who can afford it.

There are many more ethical considerations worthy of reflection in regards to this issue. For those who are interested, I commend to you this resource, provided by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission; Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research; Volume III, Religious Perspectives.

I am initially inclined to encourage pluripotent stem cell research, as the potential to alleviate human suffering is so great. But, at the same time, I recognize that this is a very consequentialist approach to the ethical question; the ends justify the means. Although this is the approach that we are forced to take when faced with various ethical dilemmas, I'm not so sure this is such a dilemma. I'm uncomfortable with that slippery slope looming before us.

The testimony of Gilbert Meilaender in the NBAC's report includes a quote from C.S. Lewis that dances near my personal discomfort;

We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may "conquer" them. We are always conquering Nature, because "nature" is the name for what we have to some extent conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psycho-analyse her.

The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss.

But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all...[I]f man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be.
An example of this that leaps to mind is the way the media speaks about the fatalities in Iraq. We hear about the American casualties, but rarely are the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been killed (23,000 is the mininum estimate, 100,000 the max) or wounded. Are the "conquered" Iraqis now "things," so their cost for this "liberation" is not worthy of being reported? Such subtle shifts in human awareness is how the slippery slope operates.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts regarding stem cell research.


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