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The Perilous Pursuits of Stem Cell Research

January 2002
By: Mark Blocher
Promises from the advocates of embryonic stem cell research and human cloning cannot be trusted. These proponents are of the same ilk as the proponents of in vitro fertilization, who in the 1970s said that we would not produce multiple embryos for every one we implanted. But doctors are doing just that.

The debate over embryonic stem cell research has something for everyone. It features stories of human suffering that touch the heart, scientific mysteries that challenge the mind, celebrity testimonials that stimulate public interest, and unlikely political alliances that baffle the pundits. Two of the principle arguments offered up in favor of using "excess" embryos (usually created for in vitro fertilization procedures) as a source of stem cells to find medical cures are: (1) these embryos will be destroyed anyway, so we might as well get some use out of them, and (2) embryos are not human beings. At first glance, both arguments sound persuasive. However, after a brief examination both fail.

"The excess embryos will be destroyed anyway."
Is it a foregone conclusion that so-called "excess" embryos will be destroyed? Marlene and John Strege do not think so. Marlene, a resident of Falbrook, California, and a registered occupational therapist, holds a B.S. magna cum laude from the University of Southern California. She is infertile. However, the Strege's are the proud parents of little Hannah Strege. Hannah was adopted as an "excess" frozen human embryo, one of the 198,000 little "Hannahs" being warehoused in fertility clinics throughout the United States.

Thousands of accounts of couples like the Streges refute the argument that the destruction of these embryos is inevitable. In the in vitro fertilization process, doctors routinely fertilize more eggs than they are likely to use. But unimplanted embryos are not mere specimens to be discarded and destroyed. They are human beings. As such, they not only have the same right to life as other human beings, but the potential to bring the joy of parenthood to childless couples.

Unfortunately, even some historically pro-life legislators have succumbed to the argument that the embryos are fated for destruction. Among those is Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). In an interview on the Fox News Channel, Senator Hatch said, "These embryos are just going to be destroyed anyway, so we might as well get some use out of them."
Both the words and actions
of those advocating stem
cell research using human
embryos reveal that they
have a lot in common with
the neighborhood abortionist.

Even if Senator Hatch were right about the pending destruction of hundreds of thousands of embryos, does the fact that a person's death is certain justify using that human being for whatever purposes we choose? Hatch's declaration sounds disturbingly Kevorkian. In his book, Prescription: Medicide—the Goodness of Planned Death,  convicted murderer Jack Kevorkian argues that since death row inmates are going to be executed anyway, they should be killed in a manner that preserves organs for needed transplants.

I don't recall Senator Hatch's embracing Kevorkian's proposal and advocating legal changes to permit removing organs from executed criminals. Why not? Hundreds, if not thousands, of people will die this year because of organ shortages. How do we justify burying perfectly good organs that could be retrieved from people that the state is going to kill anyway? Why doesn't some politician say: "These condemned human beings are just going to be destroyed anyway, so we might as well get some use out of them"?

We don't harvest organs from executed criminals because universal codes of ethics (e.g., the Nuremberg Code, the World Medical Association's Declaration of Helsinki, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights) prohibit it for good reason. Imprisoned individuals are incapable of giving informed consent. We should uphold similar principles when it comes to destroying human embryos for research purposes.

"Embryos are not human beings."
Some high visibility proponents of embryonic stem cell research claim that embryos aren't human beings. Actress and stem cell advocate Mary Tyler Moore compared human embryos to goldfish. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) described human embryos as "nothing more than a dot on a piece of paper." It is difficult to accept the comparison of Hannah to a goldfish or a "dot on a piece of paper."

For ethical reasons, we don't harvest
body parts from the cadavers of executed
criminals. So how can we justify
harvesting portions of innocent human
beings in the embryonic stage and
then discarding the human remains?

This line of reasoning is part of the legacy of legalized abortion, which has seriously distorted our nation's values concerning the moral status of pre-born human beings, so much so that even some of those who wage the pro-life fight in Congress have been compromised.

It is an interesting irony that those who propose using human embryos for medical research insist that while embryos are not human beings, due respect will be shown toward them. In the politics of abortion, its proponents have always had to make fine distinctions between having "profound respect" for pre-born human life and the actual preserving of that life. They have had to walk the ethical tightrope between the current state of fertilization technology, which callously generates dozens of "spare" embryos for every one that is implanted, with their personal interest in self-preservation, which seeks to destroy these embryos in order to produce lifesaving therapies.

What exactly does it mean to "show respect"? Is it showing respect for those embryos, unfortunate enough to have been conceived but not implanted, by calling upon them to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the common good? Is it showing respect to refer to them as "excess" or "leftover"? Is it showing respect to compare them with goldfish or dots on a piece of paper? Is it showing respect to harvest their stem cells and flush their remains?

Ours is a hypersensitive culture in which every statement is scrutinized for racism, sexism, "homo-phobia," speciesism ad nauseum. So we have every right to scrutinize the words of those who profess to have "great respect" for embryonic human life while advocating stem cell research using human embryos. Both their words and their actions reveal that they have a lot in common with the neighborhood abortionist.

Some proponents of embryonic stem cell research beg this question by claiming that "a few cells do not make an embryo a person." However, these embryos are not just a few cells, but a few hundred cells. Proponents seem to be arguing that if an embryo does not look human, it is not a human being. (Where have we heard that before?) What they refuse to acknowledge is that this being of a few hundred cells looks precisely like what a human being should look like at this stage.

There are well-established legal and ethical norms against the misuse of any human being for research purposes. Since 1975, those norms have been applied to unborn children at every stage of development in the womb, and since 1995 they have been applied to human embryos outside the womb as well. It may surprise many in post-abortion America that the human embryo has any legal protection at all. However, a number of states (Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and even Senator Orrin Hatch's Utah) provide specific protections for embryonic human beings outside of the womb, including prohibitions against experiments on embryos outside the womb.

The Human Cloning Connection
There is an inescapable connection between using "leftover" human embryos and making human clones. The in vitro fertilization process and the human cloning process are parallel in many respects. And it should come as no surprise that by further dehumanizing human embryos through terminology and through legislation, advocates of stem cell research are chipping away at society's resistance to human cloning.

The most persuasive argument made in favor of embryonic stem cell research is a utilitarian one: so many lives will be saved, so much suffering will be averted. And imagine, if "leftover" embryos can rescue so many from suffering and death, how much more would human clones benefit humanity? If tiny, microscopic cells can bring such enormous benefit, think of all that can be accomplished by harvesting whole organs from clones. Advocates of cloning will declare that we would never do that, but their declaration is not convincing. In the 1970s, the proponents of in vitro fertilization said that we would not produce multiple embryos for every one we implanted. But doctors are doing just that. Unfortunately, we are being compelled by the technological imperative: "If we can do it, we must do it." But that technological imperative must be subjected to moral imperatives lest we lose the last vestiges of humanity.

The last century was marred by numerous atrocities against vulnerable human beings in the name of progress and medical benefit. In every instance, these atrocities occurred when crass utilitarian goals designated a sub-class of human beings, allowing the well-being of the vulnerable to be sacrificed for the potential benefit of the powerful. Let us not repeat these misdeeds, whether in the hope of achieving some humanitarian purpose or in the quest for scientific progress.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mr. Blocher is the president of Worldview Institute.

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