Escaping Entropy: Absurdity over stem cells – where “human” begins
Published: Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
In a high school ethics class we were once asked the question, "When does a human life begin?" If only it were merely a rhetorical device intended to provoke a thoughtful discussion about sentience, as one might witness in a collegiate setting. Instead the ensuing debate brought out the deeply entrenched biases and emotions characteristic of a typical Catholic-dominated New England environment.
Each of my peers was fervently committed to his or her particular stance: "It begins at two weeks!," "No, at least two months!," or "You're both wrong, it must be at conception!" Most viewpoints were based on some arbitrarily chosen feature of embryology, such as the development of the early nervous system.
Amidst the nonsense stood our master theologian, bent on convincing us that we must assume conception, lest we inadvertently "murder" a human being. Her reasoning was based on that of her two idols: Aristotle and Pope John Paul II.
The first non-academic journal article from a Google search of "anti stem cell" is, predictably, a link to Fox News. It should be no surprise to anyone that large numbers of researchers have relocated outside of the United States, in favor of less dogmatic regulations; the U.S. is still controlled by the non-existent separation between Church and State.
Opponents often cite that the harm outweighs the benefits, meaning that "killing a person" does not justify the results of the research. This overly simplistic viewpoint is flawed for three main reasons:
Firstly, assuming that the single-celled zygote formed at the moment of conception is indeed a "person," several obvious critical factors have been ignored. Should we bring another unwanted child into a world where it will likely suffer from neglect, starvation, or worse? What about the life of the mother, and what if she was a rape victim?
Secondly, the potential results of stem cell research have not been sincerely considered. Already, hundreds of people blinded by chemical spills in Italy have had their sight restored from stem cells insertions. On Oct. 11, 2010, Geron Corporation began the first human trials to restore spinal cord function by insertion of human embryonic stem cells. On June 14 of this year, a second set of Phase I trials began to restore function to sufferers of age-related macular degeneration. A few other incredible applications currently meeting with research success are treatments for heart disease, brain damage, deafness, diabetes, leukemia (and other cancers), even baldness, and — ironically — infertility. The amount of human life that may be saved or immensely improved through this research is incalculable.
Consider this: the destruction of a few unwanted embryos now will likely result in the births of many more wanted children later. It seems that the anti-abortionists are far more pro-embryo than pro-life.
Finally, many proponents of the anti-stem cell movement are generally confused about the science behind their convictions. There appear to be two main classes of naysayers: those that outright abhor the use of stem cells with little or no knowledge of the science, and those that have forced the science to conform to their preconceived notions.
While this is unfortunate, I do think that they have made at least one good point: questions of ethics should be of the utmost concern before embarking into uncertain terrain. I am, of course, referring to secular ethics, but the point remains the same.
Scientists should, and usually do, carefully consider the implications of their work. Objective institutions like the Pew Research Center provide helpful support here.
What is the current state of stem cell research?
Thankfully, President Obama overturned a Bush Administration-sponsored bill to halt federal funding for stem cell research in 2009. In the summer of 2010, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth deemed Obama's ruling illegal because it could result in the destruction of embryos, despite outrage from universities across the country and the National Institute of Health. Fortunately, this July a federal judge overturned that ruling. Stem cell research is now permitted with some restrictions.
This entire debate may be on its last legs. New breakthroughs are allowing scientists to generate stem cell lines from adult skin cells, requiring no embryonic destruction whatsoever. Although the techniques are still being refined, even the harshest critics have quieted down.
The entire issue serves to illustrate the sad state of affairs in our country. This stems (no pun intended) from not only our lack of education — but a lack of interest in education. We can only maintain optimism that the next generation of lawmakers will have more foresight.