Proponents of embryonic stem cell research point out that some of the embryos currently sitting in freezers in fertility clinics around the world are going to be washed down the drain anyway -- which surely kills them, and without any benefit to mankind. This is true. There are several answers to this. The first is that a society that truly honored each human life would take a different approach. Fertility clinics and the couples who use them would understand the moral obligation not to create more embryos than they can reasonably expect to transfer to the mother's uterus. In cases where this was impossible, the embryos could be placed for adoption with other infertile couples (this is already a widespread practice).
Once you begin to pull apart a human embryo and use its parts, you have thoroughly dehumanized it. You have justified taking one life to (speculatively) save another. Despite the rosy future painted by Ron Reagan and others, those of us who follow the field with avid interest have been disappointed by avenues of research that have failed, thus far, to pan out. Still, opponents of stem cell research should not argue that the research is going to be fruitless. No one knows. The problem is that this kind of research is morally problematic. Germany, Italy, Portugal, Luxembourg and Austria ban it. (The United States does not. We simply withhold federal funding.)
There is something else, as well. While the idea of growing spare parts -- say, spinal nerves for a paraplegic -- in a Petri dish seems wonderful, it may not be possible to do so from embryonic stem cells. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 12, scientists have been frustrated by their inability to get stem cells to grow into endoderm (the cells that make up the liver, stomach and pancreas), whereas they can coax them to become heart and nerve tissue.
"Scientists speculate," the Journal explained, "that might be because the embryo early on needs blood and nerve tissue to grow, while endoderm-based organs aren't needed until later." If we can use the stem cells of normal human embryos for research, by what logic would we shrink from allowing an embryo to reach a later stage of development in order to study better how endoderm forms?
These are treacherous moral waters we're setting sail in, and those who hesitate ought not to be scorned as ignorant, uncompassionate or blinkered.
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