The debate over embryonic stem cell research in the United States rages on. The process entails extracting stem cells from human embryos typically left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures at fertility clinics.
Embryonic stem cells have the ability to duplicate cells found throughout the human body, thereby leading researchers to believe that treatments for diseases and spinal cord injuries can be found through such research. Seeing as the destruction of human embryos is involved, the issue is attracting a fair amount of controversy, at both
statewide and national levels.
Here in California, state legislation is holding up the voter-approved Proposition 71. The initiative to provide state funding for an embryonic stem cell research institute has run into more than a few hurdles along the way. If it passes the state Senate and Assembly this month, a proposed amendment to the state constitution to try to patch up some of the problems with the original proposition could wind up before voters in November. Though San Francisco has been chosen as the location of the much-anticipated California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the facility’s future rests on the outcome of the ongoing debate.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on our nation’s capital, where differences of opinion are being fought out in the House and soon will be in the Senate as well. President Bush has threatened to veto congressional legislation that would loosen the rules governing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Bush has gotten a lot of flack for standing firm on this issue, but his determination not to cross “a critical ethical line,” as he put it during a recent press conference, is worth considering.
Beyond all the partisan bickering, the issue has deeply philosophical and ethical underpinnings. At the end of the day, it’s about what kind of society we want to inhabit in the future. Will it be one in which the value of human life is considered, or one in which human life is turned into a commodity?
Echoes of ‘Brave New World’
Aldous Huxley foresaw such a society in his visionary novel Brave New World. In the dystopia the story takes place in, reproduction is taken away from individuals’ control and managed in an industrial production line. In the cold, sterile environment of an assembly line, lab workers tend to thousands of embryos, shaping and controlling their destinies. Human beings have been freed from disease and the signs of old age through genetic manipulation and are able to live prolonged lives of infantile pleasure. There, too, it is for the “good of society” and the cause of “progress” that such processes are encouraged. Whatever else turns out to be prophetic about Huxley’s novel, his chilling prediction of embryonic manipulation is what our society now finds itself facing.
Unfortunately, the debate over this monumental issue all too often devolves into misinformed rhetoric. It has become so polarized that one cannot come out against embryonic stem cell research without being described as a religious fanatic. Proponents seem unable to accept that ethical considerations to this issue need not be related to religious beliefs. A healthy dose of skepticism toward the unadulterated pursuit of science is all that’s required. But even if one’s objections do stem from religious convictions, should a belief in the sanctity of life really be something to apologize for? It would seem that an insistence on the cheapness and expendability of life would be thought more objectionable, but perhaps not.
One needn’t be antiscience or even opposed to reproductive science in general to urge caution in pursuit of embryonic stem cell research, for science, above all else, can have dangerous consequences. As we advance our scientific knowledge, we owe it to ourselves as human beings not to rush over the precipice. Just because we can do it, does that mean we should? Proponents claim that embryonic stem cell research will not result in reproductive cloning, but if we continue down our current path, it’s inevitable. Shouldn’t we take responsibility for that future before it comes to pass?
Such is the unquestioning belief in science that supporters of embryonic stem cell research have managed to convince themselves that creating stables of embryos for spare parts is palatable. At this point, the research involves only embryonic stem cells and termination of embryos is slated for 14 days, after which uncomfortable questions about viability arise. But how much longer will it be before embryos are grown to completion and baby banks provide organs, limbs or even brains? The commodification of human life will then be inescapable.
To think that such attitudes would not then pervade every aspect of human society is willful blindness at its worst. For was it not such attitudes that led the Nazis down the path from euthanasia to the horror of eugenics? Then, too, it was doctors and scientists who were given an inordinate amount of power over decisions of life and death. The Nazis’ quest for racial perfection should serve as a lesson to those who today seek a different kind of flawlessness.
The perfection that proponents of embryonic stem cell research seek is nothing less than immortality. Though human beings will always search for cures to diseases, striving for invulnerability can be dangerous. Everyone understands the pain of people with relatives who suffer from illnesses, and their desire to end that suffering. But at what cost? Would one’s child be happy to learn later in life that his or her good health came at the destruction of another life?
Philosophy of Transhumanism
Disease and illness will always beset humans because we are mortal beings. At the end of our lives lies the inevitability of death. To try to avoid this fate is to deny the cycle of life, to deny nature itself. In fact, there are those who actively seek such a state. They subscribe to a philosophy called transhumanism, or “the doctrine that we can and should become more than human” through the use of science. But should we really be so eager to shed our humanity? Rather than “more than human,” we could very well end up less so.
Another popular argument for embryonic stem cell research is that extra embryos left in fertility clinics are routinely thrown away, so why not use them for research purposes instead? But how would using them for our own medical needs absolve the waste of throwing them away? This is like arguing that once a person commits a crime, furthe
r crimes make no difference. Or that relieving the terminally ill of their organs because they’re on their way out is somehow acceptable. Simply justifying experimentation out of convenience hardly addresses ethical concerns. Those who have adopted frozen embryos and raised the resulting infants have demonstrated another avenue for dealing with this dilemma.
The national debate over embryonic stem cell research is about federal funding, not about preventing private or personal funding. But to hear the critics tell it, you’d think the government was banning the research altogether. To the contrary, there’s absolutely nothing stopping researchers from going forward with their work. Due to private funding, more than 60 embryonic stem cell lines are already available to researchers. And National Academy of Sciences guidelines will at least encourage responsible practices. Yet none of this information seems to have quieted down the hysteria.
When it comes to the alleged benefits of embryonic stem cell research for the disabled, adherents have really ratcheted up the rhetoric. But those wringing their hands over the deprivations of the disabled conveniently ignore the voices of opposition from among their ranks. Although disabled people could at least in theory benefit from embryonic stem cell research, plenty of them still oppose the process. They have come out as a strong force both against euthanasia (seeing as they would likely be on the receiving end of such “merciful” deaths) and against embryonic stem cell research.
This opposition hasn’t stopped supporters from cravenly using the disabled to push their agenda, particularly during the 2004 presidential election. When Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards claimed that people such as the late Christopher Reeve would be able to “get up out of that wheelchair and walk again” were John Kerry to become president, it was political opportunism at its worst.
Whether the disabled—or anyone, for that matter—will profit from embryonic stem cell research remains to be seen. Though research on adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood has yielded a wealth of positive results, embryonic stem cell research has yet to produce even one successful medical treatment. And although adult stem cells were initially thought to be limited in potential compared to embryonic stem cells, recent developments involving bone marrow have led to a rethinking of such assumptions. But the true believers remain unmoved and are determined to stick to their script, regardless of the evidence.
At the heart of this fanaticism lies raw partisanship. Such is the fierce antipathy toward Bush that many of his detractors have shown themselves willing to support just about anything he opposes, and vice versa. This was especially evident during the 2004 elections, when it became a simple case of “Whatever Bush is for, I’m against.”
It was in such a polarized environment that California voters supported Proposition 71. Despite a dearth of scientific results, as well as questionable financing and a tight state budget, liberal voters determined to oppose Bush made Proposition 71 a reality. Though the wrangling over the future of the initiative continues, the reality at the heart of its inception is worrying. The fact that voters will align themselves with any cause simply to harm their political opponents doesn’t bode well for the state’s future.
But there were others who saw past their own political prejudices and voted on principle. This is why opposition to Proposition 71 was spread across the board. I personally know liberals who disagreed with the Bush administration on just about everything but found the idea of harvesting embryos distasteful, if not horrifying. Some of them were also opposed to pulling the tube on Terry Schiavo, as well as euthanasia in general. All of them are pro-choice.
Ethical Guidelines Needed
Though pro-lifers might decry the apparent contradiction, there are degrees of allowance for issues of life and death our society engages in on a daily basis. The death penalty is another instance, although comparing those guilty of heinous crimes to the innocent strikes me as disingenuous. In the modern world we inhabit, decisions about mortality will only increase. Instead of denying this fact, we should set up a series of ethical guidelines and proceed accordingly.
Supporters of embryonic stem cell research argue that America will be left behind in the dustbin of history as other nations surpass us scientifically. But rather than being overtaken, the United States could become an ethical leader in a world gone awry. Are we going to allow the United Kingdom, China, South Korea and other nations to set the agenda, or are we going to stand firm on our own moral footing?
Whatever happens in the United States, the genie has already been let out of the bottle internationally and the ethical line Bush warned of has indeed been crossed. Guidelines exist in some of those countries and in the United Kingdom are mandated by the government (something some Americans think our government should be doing), but they all originate with the belief that such research is in and of itself acceptable.
It seems human beings are determined to march on into the brave new world of transhumanism, without thought for the consequences. Aldous Huxley’s premonition does indeed appear to be coming true. In the prologue to Brave New World, he urges us “to use applied science, not as the end to which human beings are to be made the means, but as the means to producing a race of free individuals.” Somehow, I don’t think our present situation is what he had in mind.
Originally writtten June 8 2005