Problems with Embryonic Research (Part II)

In Part I, I noted that an article in National Geographic put forth the argument in favor of embryonic stem cell research which could be summarized as follows:

(1) treatments using embryonic stem cell hold greater promise than treatments utilizing adult stem cells; (2) yes, the process does end the "life" of the embryo but (a) it is small and insignificant and (b) chances are the embryo was going to be thrown out anyway.

In Part I, I pointed out that the idea that embryonic stem cell research may hold out more promise, but that promise is far from being a certainty. In fact, it seems more akin to playing the lottery: yeah, there is a huge payoff, but what are the odds of winning? In the case of embryonic stem cell research, I don't think the odds are as astronomical as playing the lottery, but they certainly are far from a sure thing.

While I think that the idea of spending billions of dollars on the embryonic stem cell lottery in hopes of winning the big prize is not the best use of our money (especially since adult stem cell research is actually coming up with real, useful treatments), the more troubling aspect of the embryonic stem cell debate surrounds the second half of the argument: the acknowledgment that it ends a life but either that life wasn't developed enough to matter and we were just going to dump the excess embryos anyway.

This weekend, Parade Magazine published the results of a poll that it conducted on the opinions of people regarding embryonic stem cell research. The poll found that 58% of Americans strongly or somewhat favor embryonic stem cell research (page 7). But, of course, this view depends upon a view of the "non-human" nature of the embryo.

Consider this: if I were to tell you that we were going to take two-week-old babies and kill them so that we could use their stem cells for research to create treatments for other people to live, would you consider that okay? If you are sane, the answer would certainly be "no." Why not? Because we recognize that killing other human beings in the furtherance of medical research is simply not acceptable. And so the question becomes a very simple one: is the embryo a living human being? If it is, then the ethical question should become very clear: we should not kill another human being to advance research in medical science.

So, is the embryo a living human being? Playing the part of a Rabbi, I will answer the question with a question: what else could it be?

Is the embryo alive? Certainly, there is no question that the embryo is alive. If allowed to continue on a normal path in its proper environment, it would continue to grow and take in nourishment and excrete waste. It would do everything that any other living organism does which we consider to be alive. So, on what basis could we possibly say it is not alive?

There are some who would argue that it isn't viable, i.e., it cannot survive on its own outside the womb. But this is a red herring on the issue of whether it is alive. Yes, the embryo cannot survive out of the womb until it reaches a certain size, weight and level of development. But the very idea that it cannot "survive" outside of the womb shows an implicit understanding that it was alive in the first place. A fish cannot "survive" out of the water, but no one argues that it wasn't alive. It just requires a certain environment as a prerequisite for its survival. In fact, there is no person living today (inside or outside of the womb) who would survive if we were plucked outside of our environment and left floating unprotected in space, yet no one would argue that we weren't alive before being deposited in the vacuum. You see, viability is not a test for life -- it is a test of whether the baby is able to continue to live outside of the environment that it initially needs to further its development.

No, there is no real doubt that the embryo is alive. So, that leads to the second question:

Is the embryo a human being? Since the embryo has a father who is a human being and a mother who is a human being, the question becomes the one I posed earlier: what else could it be? The sexual union of two human beings (absent a mutation that creates a brand new entity) has to produce a human being. There is no alternative. In fact, today's advances in DNA technology would confirm unquestionably that the embryo is a human being.

Now that we know that the embryo is a living human being, that makes the moral issue very clear: we should not kill another human being to advance research in medical science. Yet, I acknowledge that it is sometimes difficult to grasp the fact that the embryo is a living human being, i.e., a baby. Why is that? I think it is for a couple of reasons.

First, the embryo doesn't look like a human being. Heck, it doesn't look like anything different than a gathering of cells which doesn't look a whole lot different than the single celled organisms we have all seen at one time or another under a microscope. We don't see little hands or feet, or a little baby face staring back at you. So it leads us to think that the embryo is not a human being. This is very dangerous thinking, because once we start classifying people as humans or non-humans based on the way they look, we are traveling a very dangerous road indeed. Joseph Carey Merrick, who lived in England at the turn of the last Century, hardly looked like a human being. His misshapen head caused people on the streets of London at one time to chase him like a beast through the London streets. Yet, who denies that the very deformed "Elephant Man" wasn't a human being simply because he didn't look like one?

Second, the use of the word "embryo" to describe the human being killed in the process of embryonic stem cell research, while medically accurate, is ultimately misleading. People don't associate the word "embryo" with "living human being." It reads more like a "pre-human." Consider the following question on the Parade poll (page 14) with the emphasis added:

Some people say: Stem cell research using excess embryos from fertility clinics does not pose an ethical dilemma because the embryos would have otherwise been discarded. Other people say: Stem cell research using excess embryos from fertility clinics poses an ethical dilemma because they are potentially viable human embryos. Which of these statements comes closer to your view?

"Potentially viable human embryos?" Why not just say "pre-humans" or "sub-humans" or "non-human tissue mass"? The very language we use to describe these humans in the embryonic stage of development frames the way we look at them. There is power in language as anyone knows who pays attention to debate, and the very use of the phrase "embryonic stem cell" makes the debate sound as if we were speaking of something besides living human beings. But we are not.

In sum, the child who is in the embryonic stage of development is a living human being who should not be treated as if he/she is not regardless of whether he/she looks like an baby or not. Thus, the idea that it is okay to kill the baby simply because it is still "only" a clump of five or six cells -- smaller than the head of a pin -- ignores the reality that the "embryo" is a living human being which we would not dream of killing for medical research once it reaches a later stage of development.

Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi blog.


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