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Stem Cell Tactics

August 17, 2006

Stem Cell Tactics

We human beings all start small. Indeed, we start so small that during the first days of our lives we would be easily missed by another human being straining to see us with the naked eye. In the ordinary course of events, however, we grow and grow at quite a rapid speed, as long as we are located in circumstances where we are warm and nourishment is available.

We start small, we get big, and we get big on our own. No one needs to intervene in the process. In the language of biologists, as soon as the sperm of a human male merges with the egg of a human female, "the entire genetic makeup of a human individual has been determined." We are the persons we will be until the day and hour in which we "shuffle off this mortal coil."

During the first eight or so weeks of our life here on earth, we are identified by scientists as "embryos," just as we are identified by scientists and non-scientists alike as "babies" nine months later, again in the ordinary course of events.

As embryos, we have within us certain entities all scientists term "embryonic stem cells" and some scientists would like to remove so as to determine whether they might prove useful in alleviating the afflictions of other human beings. Unfortunately, when the embryonic stem cells are removed, the human being in the embryonic stage of his or her life is killed; and when this happens or is even proposed to happen, many cry out in protest. Nor is their reaction hard to understand. For even the most elemental of ethics condemns the killing of one human being for the advantage of another.

The reader has very likely guessed where all of this is leading. In the splendid era of scientific wonders in which we are privileged to live, scientists have discovered that stem cells from such sources as umbilical cord blood and bone marrow can be infused into the tissues of babies, children, youths and adults with the effect of alleviating or even curing certain physical maladies. And they suspect that the same may be true of embryonic stem cells, even though with these particular stem cells there have thus far been few, if any, successes.

As noted above, many are horrified by such use of embryonic stem cells; and they have made their voices heard. Killing one human being with the hope, or even the certainty, of benefiting another is in their judgment plainly unethical and, therefore, totally unacceptable. In articulating their position, they, of course, have no need to make any reference whatever to faith, religion or anything connected with faith or religion. The radical wrongness of the action in question emerges from the most basic sense of what is just and decent in any community of human beings that has taken at least its first steps in the direction of civilization.

Sadly, however, those who champion extracting embryonic stem cells from human beings in their embryonic stage have devised an effective, though unworthy, tactic whereby to achieve their purpose despite the protest of others. They tell the world in full-page advertisements and letters to the editor in popular newspapers and magazines that the curing of all manner of human diseases by means of embryonic stem cells is being thwarted by "religion dictating law," is the victim of "Luddite religiosity," and-my favorite-"doesn't have a prayer thanks to (the actions of) a few religious extremists."

And all too often their tactic works!

It is true that, in addition to the most basic demands of ethics, many who are of a religious turn of mind observe that the killing of one human being, even a very little human being, in the interest of another human being is wrong also from the standpoint of religion. However, they hasten to add that, quite apart from faith, religion or anything connected with faith or religion, society must never countenance the killing of one human being at any stage in its development from embryo to old age in order to advance the well-being of another human being. And this is precisely what happens when embryonic stem cells are taken from human beings in their embryonic stage to provide medical assistance to other human beings who have progressed beyond their embryonic stage.

For those who would consider it beneath themselves to adopt the "blame it on religion" tactic to justify the killing of human embryos by removing their stem cells, there are two further tactics-both unacceptable-for dealing with the issue. The first is to observe that in so-called "in vitro fertilization" most of the embryos that result from mixing human eggs and human sperm together in a petri dish are, in the incredibly crass expression of a recent newspaper editorial, "routinely created and discarded." Accordingly, we are to conclude, no one should be dismayed if we use those embryos for whatever purposes we consider worthy.

Clearly, any member of the human race with even the slightest understanding of the value and dignity of a human being will recoil from such an attitude and rush to the rooftops to shout: "Stop the routine!" We have witnessed too much casual violence and killing over the past century in Mao's China, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Empire to remain silent in the face of approved mayhem. For silence can be dangerous. Today's violence may be aimed at someone else, but tomorrow's may be aimed at you or me. If ethics makes no impression as regards "routine discarding" of human beings, one hopes that at least self-interest will move in to fill the void.

The third and final tactic is little more than playing with words. Some who are properly but not deeply embarrassed by the killing of the human embryo occasionally insert the word "potential" in front of the words "human being" when treating the removal of embryonic stem cells. It is ordinarily just "slipped in" without explanation or justification; and one suspects that those who do this hope that the little, rather high-sounding, "Latinish" word will go unnoticed.

The author of this article, when he was an embryo within his mother, was a potential baby, adult and old man. This did not make him a potential human being. Rather, in the embryonic stage he was already an actual human being whose entire genetic makeup was determined, alive, growing and growing with remarkable energy and speed. Nothing happened to him after the sperm of his father united with the egg of his mother to somehow turn him into a human being. That had already been achieved.

Why then introduce the word "potential" into the discussion? Those who do so never say. Hence, I will presume to speak for them. The hope is that the uncareful reader or listener will be led by the word "potential" to imagine that, somewhere along the way from embryo to baby, what was not a human being originally somehow morphs into one. The trouble with this, however, is that no serious scientist is in a position even to suggest when this marvel takes place. At best, it is an imagined transformation, a product of dreams or simply an intuition of "Luddite science."

Thirteen years ago a professor who now heads a department of ethics in one of the nation's "Ivy League" universities authored an academic "best-seller" in which he addressed the "potential" approach to justifying the killing of human beings within their mothers and reduced it to utter nonsense with clarity, learning and a measure of gentle sarcasm. Over and over he insisted that no one in any area of serious science has ever been able to point to a moment or, in his words, "a dividing line" in the development of a child "in utero" when something that was other than human before is somehow turned into a human being. (Cf. P. Singer, "Practical Ethics," 2nd ed., New York, 1993, pp. 137, 138 [twice], 140, 142 and 149.)

Our professor is, of course, 100 percent correct. Regrettably, however, he does not stop with his original observation. Wanting there to be some kind of reasonable defense for killing children within their mothers and discouraged because he could find none, he set down on paper one of the most horrific proposals about humankind that has ever come to my attention. Quit looking for justifications for killing the being on the road to being born, he tells us. Just go ahead and kill it after it is born if it does not measure up to your requirements. For example, do as you please with it if it has not become, among other things, "an autonomous being, capable of making choices," something that the professor expects it should become at some point after its second or third birthday. (Ibid., p. 171.)

In the light of all of this, perhaps my reader will forgive me for what I wrote about the danger of remaining silent in the face of the unchallenged killing of human beings at various points in their development. Parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to have their offspring sit at the feet of professors of ethics who write academically popular books. Is there any danger, I would inquire, that some of the students might take certain of their professors seriously? And, if so, what does the future hold for the rest of us?

The author of this article, when he was an embryo within his mother, was a potential baby, adult and old man. This did not make him a potential human being. Rather, in the embryonic stage he was already an actual human being whose entire genetic makeup was determined, alive, growing and growing with remarkable energy and speed.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York

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