The Stemcell Dilemma: A Broader Perspective            

THE CURRENT WRANGLING over the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research appears to be heating up the abortion debate all over again.

Although stem cells -- which are cells capable of growing into almost any human organ ‑- are found in certain parts of even an adult such as in bone marrow, early (less than a week old) embryos are believed to offer the most prolific and promising source.

So just when the majority of Americans except the most extreme "pro‑choice" partisans had become persuaded of the total unacceptability of late term or so‑called "partial birth" abortions, this time even the  "pro‑life" camp seems divided over this issue. Why can't unwanted "surplus" early stage  embryos stored in fertility clinic freezers be thawed out and used for medical research instead of simply being thrown away? Instead, if all kinds of diseases and disabilities might be eliminated with the use of stem cells, is not this use of unwanted embryos profoundly "pro‑life"?

       THE SIMPLE ANSWER, of course, is that if the human embryo, from the moment of conception, is in fact a human being with human rights like anyone else, then no amount of possible good can be used as an excuse to perform an act that is intrinsically evil. In other words, cutting apart a frozen embryo to harvest its stem cells is abortion, no matter how clinical the procedure or how noble the cause. And abortion, in turn, is seen by many as the equivalent of "murder", no matter how early it is done.

The problem with this simple answer is, however, that it is based on a prescientific belief ‑ that everything living, from plants to animals to people, possesses a "soul" which is the cause of its life, and which in the case of humans is a guarantee of immortality. How this philosophical belief became confused with religious faith is a rather complicated matter (which would take much more space than allowed here to explain).  But the upshot is as if, by analogy, an acorn were to be regarded essentially as being already an oak tree or a caterpillar the same as a moth or butterfly. Both phases have to be sure, the same genetic code, but does that make them equivalent?

ON THE OTHER HAND, there looms a much more difficult question to be faced. For even if the simplistic equation of embryo with "person" is set aside as untenable and unrealistic, still, if the embryonic stem cell research proves successful, then there will be tremendous pressure, one can be sure, to produce such stem cells on a wholesale scale, with fertility clinics becoming, in effect, stem‑cell factories or farms. Then perhaps the debate over abortion as such will become a secondary, rather than the primary issue.

The bigger question will be how far humanity is justified in using technology to manipulate not just reproduction, but the whole life process from conception to death. And when this happens, then, I predict, we'll be forced to rethink all these issues in a much broader context.

None of this is meant to imply that abortion is not a very serious matter. But it does mean that all "life issues", ranging from cloning and gene modification, "in vitro" fertilization, stem‑cell production, population and birth control policies, etc., as well as end‑of-life issues ‑- all of these are questions that can only be adequately dealt with from a much broader perspective than we generally used to taking in our day-to‑day life. For if becoming human is a process that begins long before birth and takes a whole lifetime to complete, then a major measure of our humanity is our ability to respect and nourish life in all its stages.

R.W.Kropf    July 28, 2001                                 Stemcell.doc     01-07-28.html