Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

I was recently asked to write a piece opposing embryonic stem cell research as a counter-point by someone who supports it.  I was leery because I have had people who disagree with me edit my work in the past so as to make my points seem less valid.  However, I was convinced of this man’s sincerity and integrity.  I have not sent him the final draft, but here is what I have developed thus far.

          There are two fundamental reasons to oppose embryonic stem cell research.  The first, and most important reason, is moral.  The other is scientific. 

          I will begin with the scientific.  For all the promises we’ve been given, and all the money that’s been spent, embryonic stem cell research has not produced one single cure or therapy.  Not one.  Zero.  By contrast, adult stem cell research has produced over sixty.  This is an extremely important point because when it comes to stem cell research, we are dealing with a zero-sum game.  Particularly with the current economic climate and debt crises, every dollar that goes to embryonic stem cell research means one less dollar available for adult stem cell research.  We have been taking billions of dollars away from productive research to throw it at an endeavor that is showing less and less promise all the time.

          Sure, someone may argue, we have not seen results from embryonic stem cell research yet, but the potential for the future is so great.  Is it?  We were told that embryonic stem cell research was critical because the cells were pluripotent, allowing them to turn into any other kind of cell, which made their potential so enticing.  However, we have since discovered that many adult stem cells, including olfactory cells and placental cells, also display pluripotency (Developmental Dynamics, June 2005) and can do everything embryonic stem cells can do, only better.

          Why better?  Because with adult stem cells, a donor can donate to himself.  Why is this important?  Because it eliminates the risk of rejection by the recipient and negates the need for immune-suppression.  Embryonic stem cells also have a nasty little habit of forming tumors, which adult stem cells do not (Stem Cells, November 2005).  So, medically speaking, there is no rational reason to continue to pursue embryonic stem cell research.  It should also be stated that it is economically insane to throw so much money at something that has shown no value, when all it does is put us into greater financial disaster than we are already in.

          But as I said at the beginning of this article, the moral reasons to abandon this type of research are far more important.  When a scientist gathers embryonic stem cells, the donor embryo is killed.  Any time we kill something, we need to ask the question, “What is it that we are killing?”

          An embryo is a human being, plain and simple.  It is a unique, self-replicating organism with its own unique DNA.  Even the most dedicated euphemists will call an embryo, “an organism of the species homo sapiens.”  That means a person.  In fact, that is the definition of a person.  If left alone, within nine months, the embryo will be a newborn baby; within six years it will be a kindergartener; within 21 years it will be a young man or young woman.  Every person reading this article was once an embryo.  All you’ve done since then is grow and develop, as you are still doing now.

          It is simply not morally justifiable to kill an innocent human being, no matter the intended benefits to others.  To do so is to walk the same road as Adolph Hitler, for example.  I do not suggest one would be walking arm in arm with him, but certainly on the same path.  And we have seen how the devaluing of the tiniest human lives has led down a slippery slope.  On February 23 an article appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics in which the killing of infants was advocated, based on the claim that there is no moral difference between infants and fetuses (about which they are correct, by the way, both must be protected).  And Princeton “ethicist” Peter Singer has famously defended the killing of children up to the age of two.

          The fact is, there is nothing that can be claimed about an embryo in an attempt to make its life less valuable than ours that, taken to its logical conclusions, doesn’t lead to far more lives being devalued.  Morally speaking, if you are human you have inestimable worth.  There can be no qualifications to that.

          I have nothing but sympathy for people who are suffering from debilitating injuries and diseases or watching their loved ones do so, and who are placing their hope in stem cell research.  But as much as we pray for their healing, we can never turn to a solution that destroys other innocent human lives in the process.  And with adult stem cell research we don’t have to.  Adult stem cell research contains none of the ethical perils that embryonic stem cell research does, and offers far more promise.  In fact, since our time, energy and dollars are going to be spent in one arena or the other, supporting adult stem cell research not only protects the dignity of all human life, but it is the way we can offer the most help to the suffering for whom we care so deeply.