You've heard the lament by now. Embryonic stem-cell research is the Scientific Thing to do; the religious bio-Luddites standing in its way are so Middle Ages. How can they allow the continued suffering of many with so-far incurable diseases because of a moot religious speculation?
At least that's how some pundits cast the debate, some of them conveniently leaving out key distinctions. But the Devil and God both are in the details.
We see it in the August 24 Pew Research Center survey, which inadvertently reinforces a false dichotomy. Respondents were asked if it's more important to conduct stem-cell research or protect embryos—as if these were mutually exclusive options. Not even a hint that many scientists are already doing both: conducting promising stem-cell research on (adult) stem cells and not destroying embryos in the process.
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry perpetuates similar falsehoods. In an early August radio address, he asserted that "at this very moment, some of the most pioneering cures and treatments are right at our fingertips, but because of the stem-cell ban, they remain beyond our reach." First, the soonest even the most optimistic researchers say cures can be developed is in five to ten years. Second, Bush didn't institute a "stem-cell ban." In an ethically unsatisfying move, he actually allowed federal funding for limited embryonic stem-cell research. Third, the implication that Bush's ban and Christians' opposition has to do with stem cells is a fallacy committed so frequently that it seems intentional. It's not about stem cells. It's about embryonic stem cells.
According to Mayo hematologist C. Christopher Hook, stem cells—extraordinarily flexible—can be derived from six sources: umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, peripheral blood, the biopsy of specific organs, fetal tissue, and the human embryo.
The research on adult stem cells, derived from the first four sources, poses no ethical dilemmas. Fetal stem-cell research is ethically murky because it is associated with abortion. But it's not debated much because it's deemed impractical, Hook says.
Then there are the controversial embryonic stem cells. What's all the fuss about? After all, as Ron Reagan Jr. assured Americans, "No fetuses are created, none destroyed" in the process of their production. No one, of course, was arguing that fetuses are destroyed in the process. Embryos are. Therefore, humans are.
Take the scenario Reagan described: Grab a cell from your arm and put its entire DNA into a shell of a donor egg. What you've just done is clone a human being. (Somehow, Reagan failed to mention that.) What results is an embryo, defined as a fertilized egg up to eight weeks of development. Putting it outside the womb doesn't change the fact that this process commodifies human life, making it raw material for our enhancements.
The supporters of embryonic stem-cell research say they are motivated by their compassion for the sick. We resonate with their concern. But why end one vulnerable human life in order to potentially prolong another? Why not use adult stem cells?
Scientists disagree whether the healing potential of adult stem cells is going to equal that of embryonic stem cells. But about a dozen biotech firms are developing therapies using adult cells. Recently, a Johns Hopkins University lab converted bone-marrow stem cells from animal donors into healthy liver cells for humans. "It's mind-blowing stuff," the head of this lab told The Washington Post. "I never would have thought this would be possible. Preposterous. Not possible. No way."
Yes way. Yes to all defenseless human life.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also posted today is California's Prop. 71 Stem-Cell 'Scam' | Supporters of cloning embryos for research have $11 million to convince state voters.
Other Christianity Today articles on stem cells and other life ethics issues includes:
Weblog: Despite Catholic Church Support, Prop. 71 Opponents Still $12 Million Behind in Funding (Sept. 09, 2004)
The Proposition 71 Stem Cell Scam | The biotech lobby is attempting to buy a law in California, Wesley J. Smith says. (Aug. 17, 2004)
Weblog: Britain Starts Cloning | Send in the clones (Aug. 12, 2004)
When Does Personhood Begin? | And what difference does it make? (June 18, 2004)
Cloning Report Breeds Confusion | Does it open the door to 'therapeutic cloning'? (May 13, 2004)
A Law That Shouldn't Be Cloned | New Jersey legalizes human cloning for research (Feb. 10, 2004)
Federal Funds Approved to Study Fetal Stem Cells | Life ethics advocates troubled by the discrepancy that allows days-old embryos more protection than more mature fetuses. (July 10, 2002)
Two Cheers | President Bush's stem-cell decision is better than the fatal cure many sought. (Aug. 10, 2001)
Britain Debates Cloning of Human Embryos | Scientists want steady stream of stem cells for "therapeutic" purposes. (Nov. 22, 2000)
Beyond the Impasse to What? | Stem-cell research may not need human embryos after all. But why are we researching in the first place? (Aug. 18, 2000)
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