Stem Cell Simplicities
7/7/2001 12:00:00 AM - Mona Charen
Let's use the bodies of condemned criminals for medical research! We could donate the eyes and heart of a Timothy McVeigh-type to some worthy medical experiment, and the lungs and livers of other murderers for similar purposes. Well, after all, the bodies are only going to be buried anyway, at least this way some good will come of them.
Why do you squirm? Probably for the same reason that no one stood in line to receive "fresh" organs from Dr. Jack Kevorkian when he offered them.
We flinch from using the organs from condemned people for several reasons, but the most important is our well-grounded fear that using the organs of executed criminals might introduce temptations to the administration capital punishment that would be immoral. If the state takes someone's life, it should be for one reason only -- to exact punishment for a heinous crime. Imagine if judges and juries were also considering how many lives could be saved by making available fresh hearts, lungs, kidneys and so on?
And yet, in the debate over stem cell research, we are constantly reminded that these embryos are going to be "discarded" anyway. Well, that only shows how much work we have to do in sensitizing people to the sanctity of life.
Human embryos should never be "discarded." There are other options, like reducing the numbers of embryos that are created in the first place, or embryo adoption. But this is a secondary question. The heart of the matter is this: Is an embryo an entity that deserves special respect?
Newsweek magazine's cover story on the matter emphatically answers that question in the negative. Over a picture of a fuzzy ball of cells the cover proclaims "There's Hope for Alzheimer's, Heart Disease, Parkinson's and Diabetes. But Will Bush Cut Off the Money?" Inside, one researcher thunders, "Anyone who would ban research on embryonic stem cells will be responsible for the harm done to real, alive, postnatal, sentient human beings who might be helped by this research."
Emphasis on might.
It may be that the miracle cures confidently predicted for Parkinsons, diabetes and such will come to pass, but some caution is certainly in order. Recall that just a few years ago, medical and media circles were abuzz with hopes for the implantation of fetal brain cells into patients with Parkinson's. Then too, as Neil Munro reminds us in the National Journal, The Washington Post urged a president named Bush to lift federal bans on such research since it offered "the best hope for progress on curing such diseases as Parkinson's."
The federal ban was not lifted, but some scientists went ahead with the procedure anyway. The results were noted (very quietly) just a couple of months ago. The New York Times reported that the experimental treatment was a failure, and that some patients suffered side effects described as "absolutely devastating ... tragic, catastrophic."
While results from stem cells may be better, one never hears a scientist asked: What is the marginal benefit of embryonic stem cells versus those found in umbilical cord blood, or those found in adults? Are we five years, or three, or one year away from achieving the same results with less morally comprised tissue?
To extract a stem cell from an embryo is to kill it. Now, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch argues that an embryo in a fertility clinic freezer does not have the same status as a baby in a mother's womb.
A thought experiment: Suppose a burglar with a grudge against a couple went to her fertility clinic and methodically smashed the vials containing their frozen embryos. Would their damages be only the value of the broken glass?
It is difficult for people with limited imaginations to see an embryo as a human being. They don't look like us. But that is the stupendous miracle of life. Each of us begins as a dot of information smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. We are dust -- and yet with the magic of DNA and with time, we become people. And those little clumps of cells, which even Newsweek agrees are "a world of potential," cannot ethically be sacrificed -- no matter what the hoped-for gain.