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.
Some proponents of embryonic stem cell research argue that embryos are merely clumps of cells that in no way resemble human beings. Since they do not look like humans, they do not qualify as members of the human family. In reality, however, an embryo looks exactly like a human being -- every human being -- at that stage in development. Let's face it, life brings a succession of changes to our outward form. At 60, one does not look like they did at 16, or at six-months. But changes in the way we look should not diminish our right to life. Whether or not someone "looks" human is irrelevant to his or objective worth.
Others argue that since the embryos involved in embryonic stem cell research reside in Petri dishes rather than in their mother's wombs, they cannot be fully human. The logic does not hold. Where we are does not determine what we are. A person's essential nature does not change based on their location. A man who lives in a nursing home is not worth more or less than a woman who lives at the Ritz Carlton. It make no sense to say that an embryo outside the womb is less human simply because it is outside the womb.
Upon careful reflection, then, it is not reasonable to claim that embryos have less worth because of their age, size, or location. Factoring such criteria into debates about human dignity contradicts our founding principles: that all men are created equal and that we all have an inalienable right to life.
While it is true that destroying some lives might lead to genuinely wonderful medical advances, embracing a utilitarian ethic poses many dangers. Should the majority have the right to run scientific experiments on the minority, especially the weak and defenseless, simply because the tests hold great promise? Do we really want to go down that path? One's right to life should not be bargained away because another may benefit from the transaction.
Fortunately President Bush has rejected the utilitarian argument that it is permissible to use, mutilate, or destroy some human beings in order to advance the health and happiness of others. In doing so, Mr. Bush stands on solid ethical ground. All who believe that human life and human dignity should be respected and protected should stand with him.