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October 28, 2006

Thinking About Stem Cells Ethics

[Still on vacation, but here's a re-post of something I wrote a couple of years ago. With Rush and the right whining about Michael J. Fox campaigning for embryonic stem cell research, it may be worth revisiting.]

Last night, I heard part of a radio interview with Dr. Steven Clark, an immunologist and medical ethicist on the University of Wisconsin faculty of Human Oncology. The topic was embryonic stem cell research. Clark’s in favor of it, including the cloning of human embryos that enables the process.

What made the interview especially interesting was the fact that Clark is a political conservative and evangelical Christian. Yet he had that wonderfully refreshing attitude shared by all good scientists: you don’t fudge the data, and you think things through for yourself — logically, not dogmatically.

On the question of whether human life begins at conception, he had this to say: Ultimately, the question isn’t when does life begin. The question is when does one have a moral obligation toward that life. Embryonic stem cell research involves taking cells from a five-day-old embryo, which, as he said, is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence and has no brain, no life history, no identity.

But, opponents of stem cell research would say, that five-day-old embryo has the potential to become a fully-developed human being. Don’t we then have a responsibility to accord it the same moral status as a fully-developed human being?

Clark offered a down-to-earth thought experiment that cuts right through the dogma. Imagine, he said, you are walking by a stem cell laboratory and you see that a fire is raging inside. You see a person lying unconscious on the floor inside and, nearby, a tank containing some number of five-day-old embryos. Which do you save, the person or the embryos?

Let’s make the scenario even more clear-cut. Suppose what you see are a dozen trapped children and a petri dish containing 13 five-day-old embryos. There are more embryos than children. Which do you save, the children or the embryos? Faced with this choice, not even the staunchest fertilized-egg-equals-human-being dogmatist would hesitate to save the children.

This thought experiment illustrates exactly the choice that faces us. I.e., there are living human beings with a variety of maladies who could be saved by research and therapy utilizing stem cells. Do we save them, or do we save the five-day-old embryos?

Posted by Jonathan at October 28, 2006 02:29 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


I'm less concerned with the controversy of using 5 day-old stem cells for research then I am with the controversy of this being a Pandora's Box. Having the ability to select our children’s genes will have ramifications that are both far reaching and long lasting.

Here's another moral scenario, same situation, burning building only now there are two groups of people and you can only save one group. Group A, six thousand children and group B, twenty elderly people. Most people would save group A, but what if you knew one of the children was Hitler and you knew what he was going to grow up to be and do, and if saved no one can change the course of his life. What now? Do you sacrifice six thousand children to save six million people? Change it around, group A is six thousand children, no Hitlers, and group B is three teenagers, Einstein, Beethoven and Gandhi. Now which group do you save?

I sit in on a staff meeting once a week with only six other people and we frequently struggle to reach a consensuses on technical, non-emotional issues. It will always be impossible for millions and billions of people to see eye-to-eye on moral issues regardless of how clever the arguments are made on either side.

The goal of stem cell research is to cure disease. With stem cell research, cures will only come with massive effort, require enormous resources, and take decades to get the real big results. Knowing this, we could use the same effort, resources and time that skirt both the moral dilemmas of stem cell research by looking at the problem from a different angle and asking how disease can be prevented. Can’t we?

Posted by: Jeff at October 30, 2006 12:20 AM