Scientific Basis for Doubts About Stem Cell Research

Embryology Points to Humanity of Nascent Life

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 4, 2005 ( The bioethics debate has heated up with the recent approval by the U.S. House of Representatives of funding for stem cell research on human embryos and the combined announcements of human cloning in South Korea and England. The cloning experiments in both cases were designed with the end of producing stem cells for medical research and eventual treatments.

A common argument used by researchers is that the stem cells used in their research are not really human life anyway, but just a collection of cells. Moreover, many supporters of allowing these experiments dismiss opposition as being anti-scientific and an attempt by moralists to impose their views on society.

After U.S. President George Bush threatened to veto any additional stem cell financing approved by Congress, a New York Times editorial of May 26 said: «His actions are based on strong religious beliefs on the part of some conservative Christians, and presumably the president himself. Such convictions deserve respect, but it is wrong to impose them on this pluralistic nation.»

On the same day Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen also criticized opposition to stem cell research saying: «I grant you that we are embarking on a wondrous and scary intellectual and ethical journey, but we are doing so to save lives, to make them bearable, to mend the broken and cure the sick. What is wrong with that?» He also condemned those he termed «religious conservatives» who «have imposed their religious convictions on the rest of us.»

Good for all

Attacking religion could just be a rhetorical trick used to willfully ignore the validity of the arguments raised by opponents of cloning and stem cell research. But it does raises questions about the basis of opposition to these techniques.

Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, archbishop of Milan, Italy, provided an answer to these questions in an article published in the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, on May 25. Titled, «The Good of Life is a Good of All and for All,» it was written in the context of the Italian referendum over the law on in vitro fertilization which will be held on June 12-13.

The archbishop started with some reflections over the legitimacy of defending human life in its initial stages. He raised the following arguments.

1. Human life is always a good. In fact, it is the most precious good that exists and is the foundation of all other goods that a human can possess. Moreover, the life of every person has such a high value that it cannot be compared to the worth of the life of other living beings.

The cardinal clarified that he was not only talking as a believer in God. He was also making an appeal to human reason, in the sense that the value of human life is something that can be grasped through the use of reason and is, therefore, a principle that can be appreciated by all.

2. Protecting human life is a duty that falls upon every one of us, to be taken up with responsibility and decision. It is, in fact, a civic duty given that the protection of human life is an irreplaceable condition for ensuring the common good of all.

3. The Church and the Christian community is united with those who defend human life from the moment of conception until death. The fact that certain rights and duties are defended by the Church does not, however, cancel out their civil legitimacy or their authenticity from a secular point of view.

It should be clear, stated Cardinal Tettamanzi, that defending human life is a prerogative of all, not just of Christians. Moreover, it would be a grave case of ideological intolerance if civil activity, legitimate in itself, were marginalized merely because it comes from Christians. Democracy itself would be the loser if this were to happen.

4. Caring for human life during its beginnings is particularly important, given its vulnerability at this stage of development. Neglecting this protection, either at the individual or social level, carries the risk of creating irremediable damage, or even the destruction of the life itself.

Concerning the debate over how to relate morality and law, Milan’s archbishop explained that they are connected in the sense that morality can illuminate our conscience, while the law codifies how we should act. It is important to remember, he added, that the state does not create human rights, and likewise cannot destroy them.

Moral norms and civil law are, indeed, distinct one from the other. But the civil law does have the important role of promoting the common good of all, even if it cannot pretend to abolish all imperfections.

Harrowing harvest

If, then, it is legitimate for Christians to have a say on laws governing human life, is it the case that in the early stage we are dealing with something that is human? This point was debated in a number of articles in the fall/winter issue of New Atlantis. The magazine is published by the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.

In their contribution, Robert George and Patrick Lee replied to arguments in favor of stem cells research advanced by two members of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Paul McHugh and Michael Sandel. George is a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the bioethics council. And Lee is professor of philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

The two said that there would not be any objection to using embryonic stem cells for research or therapy if they could be obtained without killing or harming embryos. «The point of controversy,» they noted, «is the ethics of deliberately destroying human embryos for the purpose of harvesting their stem cells.»

Both contemporary human embryology and developmental biology «leave no significant room for doubt» about the human status of embryos at the initial stage of their life, argue George and Lee. «Each of us developed by a gradual, unified and self-directed process from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child and adolescent stages of human development, and into adulthood, with his or her determinateness, unity and identity fully intact.»

We value human beings precisely because of the kind of entities they are, and they point out «that is why we consider all human beings to be equal in basic dignity and human rights.» This dignity is intrinsic and does not depend on any accidental characteristics. For this reason we do not kill retarded children to harvest their organs.

While no one claims that embryos are mature human beings, at the same time it is correct to argue that human embryos are human beings, «that is, complete, though immature, members of the human species.»

Embryology, they explain, shows the following:

— The embryo is from the start distinct from any cell of the mother or the father, and grows in its own distinct direction, with its growth being internally directed to its own survival and maturation.

— The embryo is human, since it has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings.

— The embryo is fully programmed, and has the active disposition, to develop himself or herself to the next mature stage of a human being. And unless prevented by disease, violence, or a hostile environment, the embryo will actually do so. None of the changes that occur to the embryo after fertilization, for as long as he or she survives, generates a new direction of growth.

There are, naturally, ample religious and theological grounds on which to oppose sacrificing embryos for research. But many objections are based on science and a rational ethical analysis, and are, therefore, no imposition on pluralism.

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