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Cells, Embryos and Justice

Why you don’t have to be a religious conservative to oppose stem-cell research

By Duncan M. Currie

So it turns out Harvard won’t be falling behind in the great stem-cell race after all. Last week, Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Douglas A. Melton announced that he and his team have opened 17 new stem-cell lines for research purposes. A local in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic supplied the cells after extracting them from frozen human embryos.

Ever since a bitter debate over stem-cell research erupted in the summer of 2001, the mainstream press has tended to frame the controversy as a latter-day Scopes Trial—a conflict between religious zealots on one side and proponents of scientific rationalism on the other. And, to be sure, many people’s opposition to such research is an understandable function of their faith. Yet while the media are loath to acknowledge it, there is also a very solid case against stem-cell research based not in religiosity, but in logic and simple moral reasoning.

Let’s return to a first principle: Scientific experimentation is not categorically a public good. The 1932-1972 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, for example, in which nearly 400 syphilis-afflicted black Alabamans were unwittingly forced to endure their disease in order to facilitate medical research, remains a terrible blight on the U.S. Public Health Service. The purpose of the study was initially benevolent: trying to curb the raging syphilis epidemic among southern blacks. But its eventual costs in human life were appalling.

Stem-cell research is likewise directed toward the noblest of ends: curing debilitative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The instruments of this research are not adult men; they are microscopic human embryos in the “blastocyst” stage of development. The embryos are dissected for their stem cells—cells that can potentially form any kind of tissue in the body. In the process, the embryos are killed.

My point is not to equate stem-cell research with the Tuskegee experiments. But judging by our universal revulsion at the Tuskegee story, it’s clear that Americans have reached a bioethical consensus that firmly rejects the notion of sacrificing some human beings for the sake of (possibly) curing others’ physical ailments.

Of course, many supporters of stem-cell research do not consider human embryos to be actual living beings. Rather, they situate embryos at the beginning of a human life continuum that stretches all the way from non-life to viability. In this view, only much later in their development do embryos become creatures worthy of basic justice.

Some therefore argue that frozen embryos merely have the “potential” for life. This implies that they currently exist in a nebulous state of almost- or partial-aliveness. Logically speaking, can an embryo be partially alive? (Can a woman be partially pregnant?) If a frozen embryo is not worthy of legal protection until it is implanted in a womb, or until it is born, then we have made location the decisive criterion for personhood. But aside from their being at different stages of human development, what, really, is the difference between a frozen embryo awaiting implantation and, say, a nine-year-old girl who was conceived in a lab and once looked just like that frozen embryo? For that matter, weren’t we all blastocysts at one point?

A typical riposte from research enthusiasts is: “Well, the human embryos in question are mostly ‘leftover’ embryos that were going to be discarded anyway, so...” While this may be true, it obscures the underlying issue: namely, the moral status of those embryos. If embryos command the same legal claims as human beings, then we no more have the right to harvest their organs than we would those of death row prisoners or fetuses scheduled for abortion. (Plus, many people believe it is deplorable that “leftover” embryos are regularly destroyed at IVF clinics.)

Naturally, microscopic blastocysts in a petri dish do not evoke our reflexive compassion the way those individuals suffering from awful, incurable diseases do. And indeed, if emotion were the sole determinant of one’s position, he or she would undoubtedly favor stem-cell research. But public policy should not reflect a hasty utilitarian calculus born of sentimentality; it should reflect logic flowing from scrupulous moral deliberation. That may seem a callous thing to say, especially given the heartfelt appeals for stem-cell research from the likes of Michael J. Fox, who is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, and Christopher Reeve, who is paralyzed from the neck down. But our intrinsic human yearning to discover enhanced palliative treatments and unprecedented cures must not trump fundamental principles of justice.

The public debate over stem cells is currently hindered by the absence of a common lexicon with which to delineate the profound ethical questions involved. For example: Are frozen embryos whole human beings, or are they somehow less than human? If the latter, when do embryos officially pass the threshold of “personhood”? Moreover, if blastocysts are not miniscule human lives, then what exactly are they?

I urge all students interested in these challenging questions to attend Dr. Leon Kass’s lecture on “Brave New Biology: The Challenge for Human Dignity,” tomorrow night in William James Hall at 8 p.m. Dr. Kass is the chair of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. He is also an articulate and compelling opponent of embryonic stem-cell research. You might not agree with his (or my) conclusions, and that’s fine. But at the very least, I hope you’ll come away with a more complete and nuanced understanding of the possible reservations one might have about Harvard’s new research center.

Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alernate Wednesdays.

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