Although no one knows the precise number, it is estimated that 50,000 human embryos are in deep freeze at America's in vitro fertilization banks. If the Clinton administration and others have their way, those embryos not needed by infertile couples will move from the clinic freezer to the biotech lab for research funded by the federal government.
Among the many reasons offered in favor of human embryo research, two of them have become repeated most often. First, some argue that since surplus embryos are most likely to be destroyed, it is better to put them toward a good use. Second, others argue that our social obligation to seek cures for the chronically ill outweighs any moral commitment to embryonic life.
After fertilization and before implantation in the womb, a human embryo contains so-called stem cells, the building blocks for more than 200 cell types within a human body. The goal for such research is to manufacture new specialized cells for use by physicians. Such cells, for instance, could be employed to cure illness through implantation into diseased organs, stimulating the growth of new, healthy tissue.
Last November, after privately funded researchers cultivated stem cells taken from destroyed human embryos and aborted fetuses, the Clinton administration, some members of Congress, patient-advocacy groups, the for-profit biotech industry, and biotech researchers all began to lobby for federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. (Congress in 1995 banned federal funding for any research on human embryos that posed the risk of harm.)
The coming battle over research on human embryos promises to be a defining moment in bioethics and is a struggle that should engage those who value unborn life.
Serving the greater good?
When biomedical researchers look for moral guidance, they are turning with greater frequency to experts and scholars in bioethics. For example, the biotech firm Geron Corporation, which funded the successful cultivation of human embryonic stem cells, has established an independent ethics advisory board to develop research guidelines.
But unfortunately, bioethics has in many cases lost its moorings in unchanging moral truth. By defaulting to pragmatism and situationalism, bioethics blesses harm for the few to produce good for the many and endorses the ranking of human life according to an arbitrary standard of value. The net result is that human embryos are in the crosshairs of biotech profiteers.
Richard McCormick, a Christian ethics professor at Notre Dame, has rightly criticized such co-opted bioethics as "bioetiquette." And one stark example comes from Geron's own guidelines for human embryo research: "The blastocyst [human embryo] must be treated with the respect appropriate to early human embryonic tissue."
Respect is nice. But for a moment, imagine the morally tone-deaf researcher about to dismember a living human embryo. In such a situation, how much meaning does the word respect have left in it? Using words this way is worse than meaningless because it dulls our God-given aversion to taking innocent human life. An embryo is an individual life in every significant aspect.
Daniel Callahan, an ethicist and a columnist for Commonweal magazine, has a compelling question for biomedicine: "Is biomedical research a moral imperative, such an overriding good that it must be pursued, and so valuable that some moral risk should be taken in its behalf?" Callahan says no. Such research, though intended to produce good results, does not carry the same weight of a "moral duty" as do truth telling and not stealing. The cures proposed are certainly no greater goods than might be achieved by spending the same scarce dollars for research on less problematic ways of bringing healing to the sick and dying.
Medical researchers have the bad habit of overselling the healing potential of their scientific achievements. Skepticism is appropriate when wonder cures are promised. There is no moral justification for destroying a living human embryo in the hope of biomedical progress. Before pursuing questionable research, bioscientists should first test every alternative thoroughly as well as to provide compelling evidence that their proposed research would produce a genuine benefit. To date, the biotech industry has done neither.
Good means to a good end
There are viable alternatives to the use of stem cells from human embryos. In May, Daniel McConchie from the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in Ban nock burn, Illinois, testified before the National Bioethics Advisory Committee. (This committee functions under the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency responsible for spending $15 billion annually on scientific research.) McConchie advocated greater funding for research on stem cells from adult tissue samples or even blood from umbilical cords. McConchie warned, "Many people may oppose receiving or providing treatments derived from research built upon the destruction of human embryos."
But the support for human embryo research has also been growing in the four years since the federal-funds ban. The recently created Coalition for Urgent Research (CURE), a lobbying coalition representing victims of 28 diseases, is campaigning to overturn the research ban, saying fairness and compassion for the victims of disease should prevail. But fairness and compassion should not be limited to the sick and dying. Stem-cell research may be a good means to a good end, but only if it affirms the equal value of human life at every age. Today, biotech re searchers are more driven by market forces than by moral vision. Unless Christians can help the scientific community recover its moral bearings, researchers will continue to bank on the marketplace for their support. EmbryosBank.com may be just around the corner.
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