Debating the embryo’s fate

The debate over embryonic stem-cell research continues to escalate in our country, and remains a topic of significant public interest. Because of this growing public interest, I am often invited to participate in public debates on stem-cell research and cloning. My sparring partners are usually other scientists, politicians, or public policy experts. The debates are typically held at universities or colleges, and audiences generally have the opportunity to ask questions of both sides afterwards. Having participated in a number of these debates over the past few years, I’ve been surprised by how often certain arguments are trotted out with great solemnity, as if they were obviously right and true, even though a casual observer can quickly recognize their notable flaws and inadequacies.

Recently I had the opportunity to debate a stem-cell researcher at a gathering of physicians at the New York Academy of Medicine. Our discussion was cordial and civil, even though we clearly disagreed with each other’s positions. Not infrequently, such discussions tend to take the form of a dispute over the relative merits of the two major categories of stem cells: adult vs. embryonic (adult stem-cell research does not require the destruction of young human embryos while embryonic stem-cell research generally does). I did my best to avoid letting our discussion slip into a polemic about what might work best, about efficiency, even though this was one of the key arguments used by my opponent. He stressed how embryonic stem cells appear to have certain desirable characteristics, and may one day be able to work better than adult stem cells, and if cures end up being derived from embryonic stem cells in the future, then, in effect, it must be ethical to do such research, and to destroy human embryos. This argument in one form or another has been put forward widely by the media, and has won over many Hollywood personalities, patient advocacy groups, and Washington politicians.

In responding to this argument during our debate, I recounted a little story from when I traveled to the Philippines to give a lecture about stem cells. It was my first time in that country, and I was struck by the contrasts I saw. On the one hand, segments of the Philippine society were doing very well. On the other, I witnessed startling poverty. One day, as we drove along a boulevard lined with people living in hovels made out of cardboard boxes, I noticed a boy, a street child, rummaging through piles of trash for food. His clothes were dirty, and he seemed quite frail. It looked like he did this on a daily basis in order to survive. As I watched him, the rhetorical thought flashed through my mind, patterned on the language of embryonic stem cell advocates: “...he’s so small, so insignificant: what if a cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes could be developed to benefit all of suffering mankind, by promoting scientific research that depended on killing just a single little boy like him, who, after all, is living no better than an animal? He’s probably just going to die anyway in his difficult circumstances...” After sharing this Philippine experience with my audience at the debate, I asked them a question: “Could a scientific research program like that ever be ethical?” The obvious answer to that question reminds us how ethics must always come before efficiency. Taking the lives of young humans (whether as little boys or little embryos) cannot be pronounced ethical simply because it might result in huge benefits to older, more powerful, or more wealthy humans. The fact remains that objective moral limits constrain all areas of human endeavor, including the practice of the biological sciences. Whenever the siren-call of healing and progress is blaring in our ears, we are obliged to be particularly attentive to those absolute moral boundaries.

A second argument that comes up quite often in debates about the embryo is the so-called argument from wastage. The starting point for this argument is the medical observation that most pregnancies don’t survive and are flushed from a woman’s body. One well-known embryology textbook summarizes it this way: “The total loss of conceptuses from fertilization to birth is believed to be considerable, perhaps even as high as 50 percent to nearly 80 percent.” The fact that most embryos don’t survive is then taken and used as a justification for destroying embryos to get stem cells. As another opponent of mine once put it during a debate at Southern Methodist University in Texas, “If Mother Nature destroys so many embryos naturally, why shouldn’t we be able to as well? Why get all worked up about using frozen embryos in research, when so many early embryos die naturally from miscarriages?” But the difference between a natural miscarriage and the intentional destruction of embryos is precisely the difference between the unfortunate case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome vs. the unconscionable case of smothering an infant with a pillow. What Mother Nature does and what I freely choose to do as an acting person are two separate realities, not to be confused. To put it dramatically, the fact that Mother Nature sends tsunamis that claim the lives of thousands of victims doesn’t somehow make it OK for me to shoot a machine gun into a crowded stadium and claim thousands of victims of my own.

Another tactic that is sometimes used during debates about the human embryo is to try to dissipate the energy of the argument over many options. I participated in a debate at Rutgers University in New Jersey where one of my opponents suggested that if I am so concerned about protecting embryonic humans, then I need to be equally concerned about protecting older humans by doing everything in my power to stop various wars and armed conflicts around the world. In my reply to his argument, I stressed the significant differences between the decision to go after an enemy during an armed conflict, and the decision to go after human embryos for their stem cells. Embryonic humans are always absolutely innocent and helpless, and therefore can never be willfully and directly targeted. In wartime, however, the situation is clearly more complex because the parties involved are no longer innocent, and self-defense has always been recognized as a legitimate moral choice when unjust aggression arises.

The embryo debates are sure to intensify in the future, and we need to insist on careful and rationally supported arguments from all parties in the debate. Where vulnerable and defenseless human life is concerned, the stakes are much too high to allow specious and imprecise arguments to carry the day.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River and serves as the director of education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

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