Jewish World Review July 20, 2005 / 13 Tammuz,
A solution to the stem cell debate?
Medical science may be able to settle a contentious and damaging
fight between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and yet
few have taken any notice.
Appearing before the Senate Labor, Health, and Human Services
subcommittee last week, Dr. William Hurlbut, a professor in the Human
Biology program at Stanford and a member of the President's Council on
Bioethics, outlined a number of scientific methods for obtaining embryonic
stem cells that would not involve destroying developing human embryos. This
is big news. Yet Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, displaying a prodigious
capacity for missing the point, brushed it off, declaring that "We already
know how to derive stem cells."
Well, yes, but the argument we are engaged in concerns whether
it is moral or ethical to use normal, fully functioning human embryos as
mere research material. If we can produce embryonic stem cells some other
way, we will be able to obtain the full benefits of medical research using
these cells (bearing in mind that the potential for cures has been wildly
oversold by advocates) without transgressing important moral boundaries.
Not so very long ago, Democrats expressed moral qualms about
harvesting human embryos for research. In 1999, President Clinton's National
Bioethics Advisory Commission issued a report on "Ethical Issues in Human
Stem Cell Research" and cautioned that "In our judgment, the derivation of
stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is
justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available
for advancing the research." Yet today, only six years later, those who
raise ethical objections to unrestricted embryonic stem cell research are
dismissed as troglodytes. And those who propound alternatives to destroying
human embryos must struggle to get a hearing.
The President's Council on Bioethics (www.bioethics.gov) has
outlined the possible alternatives to destroying live embryos, and the
advantages and disadvantages of each. There are at least four different
possibilities, including one introduced by Dr. Hurlbut called "altered
nuclear transfer." Essentially a variant of cloning technology, ANT would
transfer the nucleus of an adult cell into an enucleated egg and
electrically stimulate it to induce cell division. Unlike traditional
cloning however, ANT would first alter the adult nucleus or the receiving
cell, or both, to ensure that an embryo would not grow. Stem cells, however,
would grow, and these could then be used for medical research without any
ethical concerns at all since a human embryo will not have been destroyed in
order to obtain them. It would be the moral equivalent of tissue cultures.
Advocates of unrestricted embryo destruction make two principal
arguments; first, that 400,000 embryos left over from fertility treatments
are going to be thrown away anyway, and second, that an embryo is not a
human being because it is extremely tiny.
As to the second objection: Is size morally relevant? Is a
21-year-old man three times as precious as a 7-year-old boy? We can barely
see an embryo with the naked eye, yet, as Dr. Hurlbut points out, from the
vantage point of space, no human is visible on the Earth's surface. He
quotes philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, who noted more than 300
years ago that "human existence is located between infinities between the
infinitely large and the infinitely small." Pascal continued, "By space the
universe encompasses and swallows me up like a dot by thought I encompass
And by seeking to do the moral thing, we find our proper place
in the universe.
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