I think it's beyond dispute that in order to conduct embryonic stem cell research, the embryo must be killed. While there are differences between embryos and fully developed human beings, embryos are undoubtedly an early stage of development of human beings. There is no question that they are living and that their DNA makes them, scientifically speaking, human beings. Those who see little problem with embryonic stem cell research do so on the basis that the differences between grown human beings and embryos are quite significant, and that these differences are sufficient to warrant treating the embryos as something less than a full human being. Let me give an example.
In a recent post on embryonic stem cell research, one of our readers challenged me in the comments section with the following scenario:
You're caught in a burning building, BK, and you are at a T junction with an exit sign at both. On the way out the door, you see that you can pick up:
a) a liquid N2 tank containing one million embryos
b) a toddler who is sitting on the floor crying for his mother in pain
What do you do, and why?
I think this is a legitimate question and I would certainly join him in acknowledging that I would save the baby over the tank of one million embryos. But the fact that I would do so doesn't prove that the human baby is more "human" than the embryos. You see, the question is flawed in several important ways.
First, the question assumes that I need to make a quick decision (in a burning building with time to only save the baby or the tank of embryos) and my first inclination is not always the same as the result of rational reflection. Whether I make the right decision needs to be determined later when we can rationally reflect on what I did and determine if I did the right thing when all factors are carefully considered.
Second, the question of which I would save isn't decisive over the "humaness" of the embryos, and the fact that I would save the crying baby instead of the embryos doesn't mean that the latter aren't human beings. Radio talk-show host Dennis Praeger has made the following observation: "The majority of American students I have asked since 1970 whether they would save their dog or a stranger have voted against the stranger." Does the fact that the majority of the students choose to rescue their pet mean that the pet is more human than the stranger? Hardly.
Third, a more compelling difference to save the crying baby isn't that the baby is more human but because humans have compassion. We would naturally respond to save the one who is crying over the ones who lack the ability to communicate their fear or pain -- if they feel fear or pain at all. Let me give a counter-example to illustrate what I mean. Assume the same situation, except the choices in the two rooms are as follows:
a. two toddlers who you you believe to be alive but which may be dead lying immobile,
b. a toddler who is sitting on the floor crying for his mother in pain
So, which do you save if you only have time to choose one? In my view, you save the one who is crying for one major reason -- it's beyond doubt that the child is conscious and feeling pain or fear. The others may be alive but the one that is crying is in the more immediate need. If the others are alive and allowed to die, they will probably die without any awareness of the pain caused by the fire, whereas the crying infant would certainly be aware and is already aware of pain and fear. Does the fact that a person would choose to save the one conscious child rather than the two unconscious children make the latter less human than the former? I don't see how it could be so.
Finally, if the problem is limited to showing the toddler is more human than the embryos, the analogy is flawed. If it's designed to be an analogy about stem cell research, it is even more hopelessly flawed because stem cell research doesn't present us with such a dilemma. It isn't a case of "experiment on these embryos or the child will die." In fact, there is no promise that experimenting on the embros (thereby killing them) will result in anything whatsoever. It may be killing the embryos for no purpose because nothing comes for the research.
There are alternative forms of stem cell research that are available but which don't present any ethical dilemmas because no one is killed in the process of acquiring adult stem cells. Additionally, adult stem cells have a proven track record of actually resulting in treatments that embryonic stem cell treatments do not have.
In the same vein, the killing of embryos may not be needed to get the same type of stem cells required for the embryonic stem cell research. New research suggests that the same type of embryos that we hope to get from killing embryos can be extracted from human adult testes without any death at all. These stem cells called multipotent adult progenitor cells, or MAPCs, have many of the same benefits that are believed to be available from using embryonic stem cells. According to the Science Daily article:
Athersys, Inc., a Cleveland-based biopharmaceutical company pursuing cell therapy programs in cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer and other diseases, funded the research in which previously frozen human or rodent multipotent adult progenitor cells, which the company calls MultiStem™, were thawed and injected directly into the brain.
Researchers believe that MultiStem™ cells are able to deliver a therapeutic benefit in multiple ways, for example by producing factors that limit tissue damage and stimulate repair, according to Dr. Gil Van Bokkelen, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. In addition, MultiStem™ cells can safely mature into a broad range of cell types and can be produced on a large scale, something which should ease the move toward clinical studies and eventual clinical use. “Given the number of stroke victims each year, it would be a big step forward if a safe and effective stem cell therapy could be produced, conveniently stored, and efficiently delivered on a widespread basis. We believe that we can achieve that with MultiStem™,” commented Dr. Van Bokkelen.
In extensive animal testing, the mature stem cells have been shown to be safe, and do not form tumors or other abnormal tissue, a potential problem seen with embryonic stem cells. Furthermore, MultiStem™ cells generally do not require the close genetic matching between donor and recipient that is needed for a bone marrow or conventional stem cell transplant, according to company executives.
Given the ethical problems associated with the use of embryonic stem cells, its track record of providing no treatments, and the availability of altnerative sources for stem cell research that appear to provide nearly identical beneifts, there is no reason to push forward with this morally questionable research until it is determined that the benefits expected cannot be obtained from more morally neutral treatments.
Addendum (8/12/06): In addition to the MultiStem™ alternative, a news story was just released saying that mouse skin cells may also offer an alternative to embryonic stem cells. According to "Kyoto Univ. group makes cell breakthrough":
A Kyoto University research group has successfully generated a new pluripotent cell out of a mouse skin cell, which resembles an embryonic stem (ES) cell, it has been learned.
According to Thursday's online issue of a U.S. scientific journal, Cell, Prof. Shinya Yamanaka and Assistant Prof. Kazutoshi Takahashi have succeeded in creating the pluripotent cell, which they named induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell. The iPS cell has similar characteristics to ES cells, which can grow into tissues and organs.
Using an ES cell in medicine is ethically controversial, as it is extracted from an embryo. With iPS cells, there would be no ethical problems as it does not involve an embryo. If human iPS cells can be created, patients undergoing transplants could have new organs with the same genes as their own, clearing the problem of postoperative rejection responses, and without ethical problems.
Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi