Stem cell debate needs moral 'home base'

Posted: May 23, 2005 12:00 AM

I have a new toy. It is a GPS system that takes me where I want to go and tells me how to get there. When I unpacked the device, I first had to give it the location of my "home base." Now when I enter a destination it takes me there without any wrong turns.

That seems an apt analogy in the debate over stem cell research. Is there a fixed point - home base - in this debate, or are we to be left to our own devices without any knowledge of where to begin or where the path will lead?

Researchers in South Korea have announced the creation of 11 new stem cell lines. They made them by taking the skin cells of children and adults and injecting them into donor eggs. After fusing them with electricity, this product of biological deception divided and became cloned embryos, the cells of which carry the genes of the skin-cell donor.

Congress this week is debating several stem cell research bills. President Bush has threatened to veto any that involve the use of cloned human embryos, no matter how they are produced.

The victim lobby has been strong. Children and adults with now-incurable diseases have testified before Congress that stem cells might offer them an opportunity for a normal and healthy life.

But science and the give-them-what-they-want-so-they-will-vote-for-me politicians are racing ahead of any fixed moral position, without any kind of tracking to show where this will take us. Perhaps there are other methods that will get us to the destination - helping people without killing what remains of a moral guidance system.

Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, believes there are other ways to get where we want to go besides cloning and using human embryos or aborted babies. He's introducing a bill this week called the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005. It would create a national program that would use cells from umbilical cords.

According to the National Cord Blood Program at the New York Blood Center and researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, umbilical cord blood transplants have proved effective for treating patients suffering from inherited immune disorders like sickle cell anemia and leukemia, even when those transplants are from unrelated donors. These are precisely the type of afflictions some believe embryonic stem cells might cure.

If we can make scientific progress toward curing maladies from paralysis to leukemia, but without the destruction of human embryos, isn't this a win-win for everyone? We preserve at least some value for human life (already severely damaged by our tolerance of abortion on demand), while simultaneously moving ahead with our desire to find cures for various afflictions.

Some politicians like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Bush are sticking to their principles, refusing to sign legislation allowing taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research. Last week the president said, "I made very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life - I'm against that. And therefore if the bill does that, I will veto it."

Members of the president's party, including Rep. Mike Castle, Delaware Republican, are pushing for embryonic stem cell research. Mr. Bush's refusal to compromise his convictions might strengthen the backbones of any members who are wavering.

Before rushing headlong into the unknown, we should ask some basic questions: Where is our home base and what is the fixed moral point that will guide us? Who are we - evolutionary accidents upon whom any and all experiments should be tolerated for the "greater good," or are we something else and someone else's? Who made us - a scientist in a laboratory dish, a cosmic accident or "our Creator"?

You don't have to be religious to embrace the notion that life and rights must come from outside of man in order for them to be protected and unalienable. To embrace anything less and to kill embryos in order to "save" older and more developed human beings is to embrace an Orwellian philosophy that "death is life." Do we want to travel to that destination?