Debating the Embryo’s Fate

The debate over embryonic stem cell research continues to escalate in our country and remains a topic of significant public interest. Because of this growing public interest, I am often invited to participate in public debates on stem cell research and cloning. My sparring partners are usually other scientists, politicians or public policy experts. The debates are typically held at universities or colleges, and audiences generally have the opportunity to ask questions of both sides afterwards.

Having participated in a number of these debates over the past few years, I've been surprised by how often certain arguments are trotted out with great solemnity, as if they were obviously right and true, even though a casual observer can quickly recognize their notable flaws and inadequacies.

Recently I had the opportunity to debate a stem cell researcher at a gathering of physicians at the New York Academy of Medicine. Our discussion was cordial and civil, even though we clearly disagreed with each other's positions. Not infrequently, such discussions tend to take the form of a dispute over the relative merits of the two major categories of stem cells: adult vs. embryonic. Adult stem cell research does not require the destruction of young human embryos while embryonic stem cell research generally does.

I did my best to avoid letting our discussion slip into a polemic about what might work best, about efficiency, even though this was one of the key arguments used by my opponent. He stressed how embryonic stem cells appear to have certain desirable characteristics, and may one day be able to work better than adult stem cells, and if cures end up being derived from embryonic stem cells in the future, then, in effect, it must be ethical to do such research, and to destroy human embryos. This argument in one form or another has been put forward widely by the media, and has won over many Hollywood personalities, patient advocacy groups and Washington politicians.

 In responding to this argument during our debate, I recounted a little story from when I traveled to the Philippines to give a lecture about stem cells. It was my first time in that country, and I was struck by the contrasts I saw. On the one hand, segments of the Philippine society were doing very well. On the other, I witnessed startling poverty.

One day, as we drove along a boulevard lined with people living in hovels made out of cardboard boxes, I noticed a boy, a street child, rummaging through piles of trash for food. His clothes were dirty, and he seemed quite frail. It looked like he did this on a daily basis in order to survive. As I watched him, the rhetorical thought flashed through my mind, patterned on the language of embryonic stem cell advocates: "…he's so small, so insignificant: what if a cure for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes could be developed to benefit all of suffering mankind, by promoting scientific research that depended on killing just a single little boy like him, who, after all, is living no better than an animal? He's probably just going to die anyway in his difficult circumstances…"

After sharing this Philippine experience with my audience at the debate, I asked them a question: "Could a scientific research program like that ever be ethical?" The obvious answer to that question reminds us how ethics must always come before efficiency. Taking the lives of young humans, whether as little boys or little embryos, cannot be pronounced ethical simply because it might result in huge benefits to older, more powerful or more wealthy humans. The fact remains that objective moral limits constrain all areas of human endeavor, including the practice of the biological sciences. Whenever the siren-call of healing and progress is blaring in our ears, we are obliged to be particularly attentive to those absolute moral boundaries.

A second argument that comes up quite often in debates about the embryo is the so-called argument from wastage. The starting point for this argument is the medical observation that most pregnancies don't survive and are flushed from a woman's body. One well-known embryology textbook summarizes it this way: "The total loss of conceptuses from fertilization to birth is believed to be considerable, perhaps even as high as 50 percent to nearly 80 percent." The fact that most embryos don't survive is then taken and used as a justification for destroying embryos to get stem cells.

As another opponent of mine once put it during a debate at Southern Methodist University in Texas, "If Mother Nature destroys so many embryos naturally, why shouldn't we be able to as well? Why get all worked up about using frozen embryos in research, when so many early embryos die naturally from miscarriages?" But the difference between a natural miscarriage and the intentional destruction of embryos is precisely the difference between the unfortunate case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome vs. the unconscionable case of smothering an infant with a pillow. What Mother Nature does and what I freely choose to do as an acting person are two separate realities, not to be confused. To put it dramatically, the fact that Mother Nature sends tsunamis that claim the lives of thousands of victims doesn't somehow make it OK for me to shoot a machine gun into a crowded stadium and claim thousands of victims of my own.

Another tactic that is sometimes used during debates about the human embryo is to try to dissipate the energy of the argument over many options. I participated in a debate at Rutgers University in New Jersey where one of my opponents suggested that if I am so concerned about protecting embryonic humans, then I need to be equally concerned about protecting older humans by doing everything in my power to stop various wars and armed conflicts around the world. In my reply to his argument, I stressed the significant differences between the decision to go after an enemy during an armed conflict, and the decision to go after human embryos for their stem cells. Embryonic humans are always absolutely innocent and helpless, and therefore can never be willfully and directly targeted. In wartime, however, the situation is clearly more complex because the parties involved are no longer innocent, and self-defense has always been recognized as a legitimate moral choice when unjust aggression arises.

The embryo debates are sure to intensify in the future, and we need to insist on careful and rationally supported arguments from all parties in the debate. Where vulnerable and defenseless human life is concerned, the stakes are much too high to allow specious and imprecise arguments to carry the day.

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  • Guest

    All of their arguements aside, one thing in common all of the researchers who advocate embryonic stem cell research have in common is a slavish, groveling worship of Science (with a capital "S"). Never mind the sanctity of unborn human life defense. Science trumps all. All for the cause of Scientific Progress (with a capital "P"). Like their Aztec counterparts of Meso-America, if their modern-day Quetzalcoatl of Science demands human sacrifice, then they must obey, or (they tell us) horrible consequences will certainly result (mainly the flight of scientists to states/nations where they have no ethical qualms about wholesale human embryonic slaughter). Never mind the tremendous advances in the area of adult stem cell treatments for a wide variety of human ailments and conditions. Curing Parkinson's or muscular dystrophy is not really the issue. Very simply, Modern Science today cannot tolerate being told it can NOT pursue a particular line of research, even when that research involves the destruction of untold numbers of innocent human lives.

  • Guest

    My mother frequently uses the miscarriage argument to justify abortion.  In my mind that's like saying, "Well, plenty of people die every day from cancer, heart attacks, etc, so what's wrong with murder when the end result is the same as these natural causes?"

  • Guest

    God Bless Fr. Tad.  He is so amazing!  I was blessed to be able to hear him speak in person on embryonic stem cell research.  He presents the material in a way that makes you feel smart too.  And his arguments are always so intelligent and delivered in a humble way.  He is an incredibly talented and holy priest.  He is a true blessing for us in these times of confusion and corruption.  I pray that all those who come in contact with him have ears to hear the truth that he tells.

  • Guest

    Unless we can provide "personhood" to the unborn with all the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," we will continue to have this debate of property rights vs. human rights. It is the same argument that occurred 150 years ago.

    Frankenstein was a good guy compared to these science research guys. At least he waited until you were dead. God have mercy on us!

    Jim McFillin

    Great Mills, MD

  • Guest

    Some comments comparing embryonic stem cell research vs. other forms….

    http://romancatholicinfo.com/prolife/embryonic-stem-cell-research/ 

  • Guest

    All of their arguements aside, one thing in common all of the researchers who advocate embryonic stem cell research have in common is a slavish, groveling worship of Science (with a capital "S"). Never mind the sanctity of unborn human life defense. Science trumps all. All for the cause of Scientific Progress (with a capital "P"). Like their Aztec counterparts of Meso-America, if their modern-day Quetzalcoatl of Science demands human sacrifice, then they must obey, or (they tell us) horrible consequences will certainly result (mainly the flight of scientists to states/nations where they have no ethical qualms about wholesale human embryonic slaughter). Never mind the tremendous advances in the area of adult stem cell treatments for a wide variety of human ailments and conditions. Curing Parkinson's or muscular dystrophy is not really the issue. Very simply, Modern Science today cannot tolerate being told it can NOT pursue a particular line of research, even when that research involves the destruction of untold numbers of innocent human lives.   let me make it clear for you sir, you're a freaking idiot. first off, those meso-americans are my ancestors, and the sacrificial victims were willing to die for their god. just as you, and you're crazed warped view on how everyone's life should be, would die for your god. i'm not saying it's right to die for an obvious ludicrous cause, but don't look down on a culture when you obviously would do the same if it got you brownie points for your beloved god. in any case, i severely doubt scientists are "killing" just because they can't. such a statement is equivalent to a child in their early years of kindergarten. let's grow up a little shall we? it's obvious that scientists have helped us in every aspect of our lives, enabling longer and healthier lives to giving up the gift of instant, well, almost instant communication. i'm going to call you Arrogant (with a capital a).   

  • Guest

    A little boy's life would never be used in an experiment because he is a legally accepted, fully developed human. There is a legal basis for what is murder, and that is any time past when the fetus has taken its first breath. It is the same as a drinking age, or a voting age. Obviously we are not all instantly mature enough at the moment we turn 18 to vote, and some are mature enough beforehand. But it is impossible to base it on a case by case basis, there are far too many people in the world. Since an embryo is not a legal human on the basis that it is a developing clump of unthinking cells, there should be no reason why they cannot be destroyed by those of us who are alive to make our lives better. It is foolish to sacrifice a chance to make life better for all by extracting stem cells from early development embryos. This is how we have improved life constantly for hundreds of years, to rise up out of the dark ages. Let us not now stall progress by masking it with labels of infanticide.

  • Guest

    That's always the first step down the slippery slope, the 'legal label'.  Legal labels do not supercede moral absolutes.  A while back there were a group of people trying to get some federal court to declare these self-proclaimed Jedis a 'legal' religion.  Now, I don't know if that took place, but the funny thing about anything 'legal' is that it can change as the winds of the nation change.  The drinking age has changed and who, how, and at what age anyone can vote has also changed.  Just because an embryo isn't a 'legal human' today, doesn't mean that won't change tomorrow.  Moral truths don't change.  Just because a group of cells doesn't look like a full grown adult, doesn't mean they're not human beings.  They may not have thoughts, but they have neural activity at a surprisingly early stage in their development, and not having thoughts doesn't stop most people from holding public office.

     

    The problem with embryonic stem cell research that nobody seems to be catching onto is that so far it doesn't work.  We've heard stories about the promises it will bring, but after years of trying, it still doesn't work.  Not only does it not work, those little buggers cause cancer and tumors.  It isn't a matter of, we need more cells to work with, its a matter of, we can't control the cells we already have.

     

    As for being in the Dark Ages, we're not.  There are real advances being made with adult stem cells and cells from umbilical cord blood.  Over 60 diseases and conditions are treated with adult stem cells RIGHT NOW.  Not a promise of the future, now.  There are more that are in clinical trials and about to begin clinical trials, RIGHT NOW.  Researchers have grown about every tissue from these cells, inluding neural tissue.  Why are we still talking about embryonic stem cells?  There are people making money off of it.  The promises of the research may never materialize, but hey, they're going to milk that cash cow as long at they can.

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