Who Speaks for the Embryos?
By Marc Lappé
The debate over stem cells unnecessarily pits the medical and religious
communities against each other. Medicine sees the enormous potential for human
good from isolating stem cells from embryos; religion sees the enormous potential
for human evil in allowing incipient beings to be eviscerated and killed.
These seemingly irreconcilable differences put us into a kind of moral end
Many conditions where cell attrition irrevocably undermines function, like
Parkinson's disease, could clearly be helped by an infusion of new cellular
life. The dilemma is that harvesting the necessary progenitors will cost a
potential human life, albeit at an extremely early stage. Can such taking
of life ever be moral? Some groups, like orthodox Jews, believe that life
may be sacrificed in the name of greater good, say to save a group of persons
being "pursued" by a force bent on killing them. Could diseases like Parkinson's
be such a force?
Even if we were to agree on the degree of danger justifying killing, no
one has provided the proper formula for deciding who can speak for an embryo.
Who can meaningfully give consent to take an incipient life or decide for
what purposes that life may be sacrificed? Here is where a little perspective
may be useful.
On the face of it, embryo research appears to wrest something good (medical
advances) from something bad (the death of a potential person). But we need
to remember this kind of thinking got us into trouble in the past. We have
only to look at the Nazi experimentation permitted on those with "lives not
worth living" to remind us of the horrors of this slippery slope. At the same
time, we need to be reminded that embryonic research is not in the same moral
arena as Nazi research. Unlike the Nazi atrocities, we are not experimenting
on extant human beings, but potential ones. Most ethicists agree that on a
sliding scale of morality, the embryo deserves less of our concern than do
fetuses, who in turn deserve less than do children or the elderly. Why? Because
of their vulnerability and need for protection.
Indeed, the maxim of protecting the vulnerable would help inform both sides
of the debate. For us to neglect the early fetus or embryo because it is only
"potential life", is to overlook the fact that damage done early in life can
have terribly persistent and pervasive effects later in life.
The developing embryo is exquisitely vulnerable to insult from environmental
and human-made intrusions. Many of the diseases researchers have identified
as targets for stem cell therapy may arise from early damage in embryonic
stages of development. Parkinson's disease may have its origins in early fetal
damage to the developing brain. So might Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) or leukemia.
There is a kind of moral disconnect here: how can we neglect the prenatal
causes of disease while at the same time being willing to damage developing
embryos intentionally in order to treat them? You don't have to be a theologian
to wonder if it might not be more morally acceptable to encourage prevention
and protection of embryonic and fetal life from environmental damage than
to take more of those lives in the name of rescue. This position, that protecting
fetal life has priority over stem cell research to help adults may give a
new twist to the debate.
If we encouraged research on stem cells to assure their normal participation
in embryonic development we might be on more solid ground than usurping such
cells to help diseased adults. We could give something back to embryonic life
by learning about why and how its various cell lines are vital to normal development.
This idea to allow research on subjects where that research helps others in
a similar class is the mainstay of the argument for the borderline acceptability
of research on children. As for subjects, use the embryos from spontaneous
miscarriages, and where necessary, those embryos whose fate is sealed by their
imminent demise at fertility clinics. Only after vouchsafing that we have
helped the brothers and sisters of those embryos whose own development was
impossible, do we have the right to use some of the derived stem cell lines
to improve the prospects of others who are damaged by the vagaries of life
and existence in a toxic world.