Embryonic stem cell research is back on the congressional agenda, and once again the millions of Americans who reject this "research" are being ridiculed as heartless Neanderthals. There is every reason to believe that this debate will rage for decades as our country confronts new scientific advances that are fraught with ethical concerns. Therefore, rather than name calling, Americans should stop and consider the broader principles: Should there be ethical limits to our scientific research, even when research promises to yield exceptional medical cures? If so, why, and what are the limits?
We start with the proposition that human life is precious and should be respected and protected at every stage of development. If that is true, if human life is infinitely valuable, if every person has an inalienable right to life, then it is not acceptable to destroy the life of one person to benefit another.
Upon these principles most Americans generally agree. Nevertheless, they hedge when it comes to embryonic human beings. The embryos destroyed by scientists as part of their research are extremely small, they do not look human, and they are stored in Petri dishes. While we affirm in principle that all human life is precious, do we seriously believe that tiny embryos are human? This question -- is it human and, if so, does it have the same moral status as "us" -- has been at the heart of the great moral struggles throughout history. Because the wrong answer to this question has frequently had tragic consequences, we must consider it carefully.
Certain facts are incontrovertible. First, every person currently alive started out as a tiny embryo and developed from there. Second, it is clear that each embryo is genetically human. Third, an embryo is a living and growing human being from the moment it is conceived or created. Therefore, it is, by definition, "human life."
But does it have worth? Advocates of embryonic stem cell research sometimes argue that, because the destroyed embryo is so small, it has no moral significance. Size, however, does not equate with significance. Tall people are not worth more than short ones, nor are those who are fat worth more than those who are thin. The size of a person does not determine their humanity. Size does not equate with worth.