CAMBRIDGE — Both sides of the embryonic stem-cell research issue debated at Harvard Law School on April 15. Around 100 students and others filled a classroom to hear the debate, sponsored by the university’s Society for Law, Life and Religion.
Each side had one representative who stated his position, responded to his opponent’s position and answered audience questions.
Dr. Kevin Eggan, a junior fellow at Harvard, began the debate by voicing his support of embryonic stem-cell research, stressing the flexibility of embryonic stem-cells. These stem-cells are able to divide indefinitely and have the possibility of becoming any cell type in the body, he said.
The benefits of stem-cell research would far outweigh the cost of destroying embryos, and the research must continue because scientists have a moral obligation to alleviate suffering, he argued.
“I too believe we have a moral obligation to patients to do everything we can to try to treat these various diseases, but I think the other part of this equation is we have a moral obligation to consider respect for human life and human dignity,” began Dr. David Prentice, a representative of the Family Research Council who testified against embryonic stem-cell research in front of the United States Congress as well as the United Nations.
Prentice said the hype of the potential of embryonic stem-cells has been a “theoretical disappointment.” Not only is it difficult to get a specific type of cell from embryonic stem-cells, but there is a great risk of tumors, he said.
Somatic cell nuclear transfer or cloning — considered by many supporters as the most promising form of embryonic stem-cell research — involves creating an embryo in order to destroy it. It is the same process used to create Dolly the sheep, he said.
Adult stem-cells, on the other hand, are already being used to treat patients, and are much more flexible than previously thought. Nasal stem-cells have been used to treat spinal cord injuries. Patients with diabetes, heart damage or stroke have also been helped with adult stem-cells.
“We are seeing the glimmers of hope,” Prentice said. “This is not a cure yet. Much yet needs to be done.”
If scientists are actually interested in quickly helping patients, they should support adult instead of embryonic stem-cell research, he added.
Eggan responded by saying he supports adult stem-cell research, but embryonic stem-cell research must also be explored.
He added that Prentice treats the embryo and patients as moral equals, when in his view the embryo is less than the patient who seeks relief from suffering.
The debate was followed by comments from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, author of the Human Cloning Prohibition Act.
The sanctity of every human life, no matter which stage it is in, must be protected, he said. Human beings have a unique value and should not be used as a means to an end. Embryos, which are young human beings, are now being treated as commodities.
Scientists who support embryonic stem-cell research “pray on the hopes and fears of the ill and their families,” he added.
Although Christianity has shaped his view on the issue, Brownback said it is a framework for understanding moral truths. The unique value and beauty of humans can be appreciated without religious beliefs. He asked members of the crowd to raise their hands if they thought their life did not have infinite worth. Nobody raised their hand.
“Who told you that?” he asked. “We do believe life is sacred.”
Brownback called Eggan’s argument utilitarian. He then pointed out that someone in the audience could save the lives of 10 others if they kill him and donated his organs. But that does not make killing him morally permissible, he said.
Ariele Goodley, a Wellsley College student, said she came to the debate for clarification. Goodley, a pro-life Republican and Catholic, said she believes life begins with the embryo. But she supports embryonic stem-cell research because that embryo must be in utero in order for it to be morally protected, she said, referring to Eggan’s argument.
The Catholic Church teaches that life begins at the moment of conception.
Marilyn MacDonald, a Catholic who uses a wheelchair, said she came to the debate because she is “intent upon life issues.”
“Life won out,” she said of the debate. “Let’s do what’s ethical.”