Embryonic stem cell research is back on the congressional agenda. As one of their first acts in office, the newly elected Democrats have reintroduced legislation that was passed and vetoed last year, hoping to pressure the President into changing his mind. President Bush, however, has promised to veto the bill again. Nevertheless, Americans are being forced to endure a replay of last year's debate. Those who oppose the taking of innocent human lives to benefit others will be ridiculed as heartless and cruel. The spectacle promises to be nasty and grueling.
This debate is not going away. If President Bush vetoes this new bill—which was recently passed in the House and will soon come to a vote in the Senate—and if the veto is sustained, then Democrats (and their Republican accomplices, Senators Hatch, Specter, et al.) will simply reintroduce the proposal in the next Congress. They will continue to belittle ethical arguments raised in opposition to their agenda. They will complain that their opponents are Neanderthals who fear science and the progress that follows in its wake. They will insinuate that the opposition is indifferent to disease and suffering. Those with moral objections will be denigrated, disparaged, and demonized.
Of course, this time around the debate has been a little different. Last week it was reported in Nature Biotechnology that stem cells have been found in the amniotic fluid which surrounds embryos in the womb. These stem cells appear to have many of the same features as embryonic stem cells; they can develop into multiple kinds of cells, including brain, bone, and muscle cells. In addition to the fact that embryos are not killed in the process of obtaining amniotic stem cells, they show many other advantages. For example, one of the lead scientists behind the new study told the Washington Post that these cells "remain stable for years without forming tumors." This is in contrast to embryonic stem cells, which frequently produce cancerous tumors.
The success of amniotic stem cells has been encouraging to those of us who support scientists who develop life-saving cures without violating human dignity. Unfortunately, the lead scientist quoted above, Anthony Atala, has now written Congress to say that, despite the exciting results he has seen in his work, embryonic stem cell research should also be funded by Congress. He said, "Some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells. I disagree with that assertion." What Dr. Atala overlooks are the ethical implications of the two therapies. Amniotic stem cell research does not result in the destruction of a human embryo while embryonic stem cell research does. Therefore, even if amniotic stem cell research does not produce the same yield as embryonic stem cell research, it is infinitely more acceptable on ethical grounds.
What we need to make clear is that there are certain lines of research that are never permissible, even if they show great promise. It is never okay to kill and cannibalize one human life, even if such an action might benefit another, and even though the life to be destroyed is very young. We must draw the line in the sand: killing human beings at any stage of development to further research is unethical and indefensible.
It is clear that the bioethics debate will not go away Even if the amniotic stem cell finding ended the push for embryonic research, there will be another ethical crisis around the corner. Some scientists will want to clone human beings, others will want to mix human and animal genes creating "chimeras," and still others will want to experiment with integrating computers in human brains, or human brains in computers. The list of "potentially beneficial advances," with questionable moral standing, runs long. The debate will always take the same form: scientists calling opponents cruel and stupid for refusing to affirm their research, and defenders of human dignity trying to explain the ethical questions that are being overlooked in the rush toward scientific knowledge. For as long as we live we will be required to make the same case—lovingly, patiently, persistently—over and over again.
As we once again rehearse the arguments against stem cell research and as many start to feel fatigued, wondering whether it is really worth the effort, it is important to remember the virtue of perseverance. The Ancient Greeks saw perseverance as an aspect of fortitude or courage. Fortitude is the virtue of standing up for the just and the good, despite facing fear, pain, or even death. Perseverance allows one to courageously maintain the truth, over a long period of time, despite difficulty or opposition.
Standing for the protection of innocent life in the public square will require perseverance, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Bible says, "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him." (James 1:12) And let us not forget St. Paul's admonition to "run with perseverance the race marked out for us." (Hebrews 12:1) One aspect of the race marked out for us here in the twenty-first century is that we are called to defend human life and human dignity from conception to natural death. That stand will inevitably generate resistance and ridicule. Nevertheless, Christians are called to stand courageously and to persevere. Therefore, let us say it again: innocent human life, at every stage of development, must be respected and protected. On this point, we will never waiver.