Sunday, 31 July 2005

It's not Really about Stem Cell Embryos

Oh sure, there is a relatively small percentage of true believers who see any fertilized human egg as the moral equivalent of an adult human being. They earnestly oppose not only Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESR), but In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), the morning after pill, or any process in which a fertilized human egg is not allowed every chance to mature into a human. But most opponents of ESR fall into one or more of four categories. They are ignorant of the facts; they fear the "slippery slope"; they fear that any worthy research use of fetal or embryonic matter legitimates abortion, or, if they are politicians, they are pandering to a certain constituency.

My first question to anyone decrying the immorality of ESR is "Are you working just as hard or harder to ban in vitro fertilization?"

In vitro fertilization was certainly not without controversy when it was first introduced 27 years ago. Not only was there concern about fertilized eggs that wouldn't make it, but real questions about the role of science and technology in procreation, where it would stop, and concerns about the health of children brought into the world in that way. That last concern has been largely allayed, as many children now have come into being through IVF who are perfectly healthy and happy. Worries about "playing God" persist, and no one disputes that some fertilized eggs become waste in the process of IVF. That ship has sailed, however, and even opponents realize they won't be stopping IVF anytime soon.

Those who claim that ESR is a dangerous extension of IVF are either misinformed or being dishonest. While it is true that the "lives" of the otherwise discarded eggs are kept alive for an additional four days, embryos at that stage have not developed a nervous system, so claims of pain and suffering are simply not valid. If there is a wrong in having produced the eggs, that was a result of IVF, while ESR only provides hope that those eggs will serve a benefit far nobler than providing an infertile couple with genetically related progeny.

And yet IVF gets mentioned in a minority of any media reports on the matter, and not at all, as far as I can tell, by the political opponents making sanctimonious statements about "creating commodities out of embryos". If these politicians were truly grieving for the discarded eggs, they would be focusing their attention on IVF instead. But politicians are little inclined to fight losing battles, and so they pander to their constituents outraged by a procedure few understand fully, by feigning outrage themselves. And the media dumbly relays the political posturing of the "latest" controversy, rarely connecting the scientific dots for the under-educated public.

In fact, I would argue, that it is precisely the nobler purpose of finding cures for disease which really threatens opponents of this technology. Once science establishes a popular moral underpinning for technologies which opponents believe to be immoral, then the moral upper hand is lost in the larger battle against abortion or against science "playing God". It is rather akin to something I noticed during the cold war with leftist governments around the world. There were many two-bit tyrannical states around the world, and especially in Africa, which called themselves communist or socialist, but the left leaning nations that the U.S. government took interest in undermining were precisely those which had the noblest beginnings, such as the democratically elected government of Allende in Chile. Now much of that also had to do with economic connections and the relative interests of big corporations, but I'll wager the threat of legitimacy being lent to a socialist state played a big factor. In similar fashion, abortion foes are most threatened by the likelihood that embryonic stem cell research puts a humanitarian face on a procedure which consumes fertilized eggs.

One may legitimately believe that it is always wrong to fertilize a human egg in the foreknowledge that some of them will be destroyed, but I'll have more respect for those who acknowledge that if that is going to happen, science should be allowed to make beneficiary use of that otherwise discarded material, rather than insisting on cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. As biological technology advances, ethical questions will remain front and center in the debate over what to pursue and what to disallow, but the more that all the facts are put out in the open the more likely we are to arrive at reasonable compromises which consider both ethics and scientific reality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a pro-choice "progressive," I nevertheless have grave reservations about the use of stem cell technology. The current corruption and lack of oversight in the scientific and medical reserach communities is nothing short of horrifying, as the recent exposes in the Seattle Times and other news sources have revealed (there's another one on the front page of the Times today, about insider trading on leaked info about ongoing clinical trials). Until there are some meaningful controls on the money-driven medical research game, I think stem cell research has every likelihood of creating embryos-as-commodities and backroom practices that are immoral, unethical and just plain disgusting.