Stem Cells and Bioethics: A Modern Crossroad

In the first half of March 2009, President Obama erased the Bush administration’s ban on the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. Since 2001 the only stem cells allowed for research were “old” ones that existed before Bush came to power. Bush allowed 61 stem cell lines to survive his ban, but he forbid any new ones from being added. This has now been pulverized by Obama who will allow in-vitro fertilization clinics throughout the U.S. to re-direct human embryos to research centres. And these researchers will grow these embryos into stem cell lines. This will literally flood the U.S. medical system with an unprecedented amount of new, viable stem cells. What are the ethical issues (if any) surrounding this procedure and new protocol?

What is a Stem Cell?

Picture a new born baby girl. She could grow up to be anything. But as a baby, she has not developped any unique or specialized characteristics that would differentiate her from other babies. The cells of our bodies are similar. We all begin life as a single cell (like a baby cell). It is here that we have our very first full copy of our unique DNA. And immediately the “copy” button is pressed over and over again. That single cell is divided and has begun a line of descent that will build our entire human organism from head to toe. However, during these first several generations of cells, we are undifferentiated “baby” stem cells. Cells that are totally generic and identical looking. Yet are capable of becoming any type of cell. Bone cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, liver cells, pancreatic cells, cardiac muscle cells, skin cells, fat cells, etc, etc (ALL possible cell types)

Embryonic Stem Cells

These first precious bundles of embryonic stem cells are so capable of transformation that researchers are eager to accumulate them for medical use. As mentioned above, in-vitro fertility clinics produce many fertilized eggs in hopes of successfully implanting one of them into their client’s uterus.  They typically prepare several and therefore usually have “left overs.”  These embryos can be preserved but cost to the client is significant and most can’t afford it. So the embryos are discarded. Under Obama’s decree, they will now be set aside for researchers who will grow highly potent stem cell lines. Unfortunately, they can only do so by destroying the developing human embryo. This is what has caused much tension in the public sphere.

Interestingly, no known medical therapy has been developped using embryonic stem cells. Partly this is because of their previously restricted status in the U.S. But Europe has been doing embryonic stem cell research since 2003 and still all known stem cell therapies remain adult stem cell therapies.

Adult Stem Cells

Even though full grown humans are no longer embryos, the body continues to carry stem cells. These are termed adult stem cells. Bone marrow, the brain, intestinal tissue and most all human tissues carry adult stem cells. The beauty of stem cells is that, unlike other cells, they appear to be able to divide infinitely. Which is why the Bush administration’s 61 stem cell lines will continue to exist long into the future. Therapies such as bone marrow transplant for leukemia victims and joint cartilage repair are examples of successful adult stem cell therapies. These stem cells can be obtained from umbilical cord blood (post partum), baby teeth, bone marrow, skin cells, etc. And the obvious appeal of adult stem cell research is that there is no destruction of life.

In the past, mainstream medical opinion believed that embryonic stem cells were so vastly superior to adult stem cells in being able to differentiate into any known body tissue, that they were much more attractive for research purposes. So much so, that to not harvest the massive stock pile of embryonic stem cells would be morally wrong. However, recent discoveries are beginning to overturn this dogma. For example, in 2001 brain stem cells of mice were shown to morph into blood cells. And pro-adult stem cell researchers state that, as understanding improves, so will our ability to harvest any tissue from adult stem cells, without a single human life being destroyed. And besides, there has been no actual obstacles in the use of adult stem cells. When called upon, they do the job. There is no solid evidence that embryonic stem cells can step in and do better.

Ethical Dilemmas

At this moment unfortunately, the debate is effectively over. President Obama has declared embryonic stem cell research to be legal, ethical and justifiable. Is he right? The case against embryonic stem cell research has two main branches.

1. Sanctity of Human Life

Article 2 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration Human Rights states that:

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

This presents us with the next logical question: “When does the life of an individual begin?”

Purely biologically speaking, the very first moment of an individual’s life is the moment of conception. At this point, everything is in place for that individual’s life. Everything. It is the Big Bang of that life. Your hair and eye colour, height, muscle mass, propensity for cancer, bone density and all other genetic characteristics have been determined. You have been delt the cards you will draw from for the rest of your life. If you leave the conceived individual alone, they will continue to thrive. They have begun their membership to the human race and have no intention of stopping. If you destroy this individual life…well, iIt dies. An unfertilized egg amounts to absolutely nothing. A lone sperm amounts to nothing. Leave either in the uterus for as long as you like and absolutely nothing will happen. Nature declares, uncontroversially, that the beginning of personal existence at the moment an egg is fertilized by sperm. This is uncontroversial. The word conception means “origin or beginning.” Beginning of what? A person. What else? Everyone begins at this moment. EVERYONE. This is not an arbitrary moment in our lives, it is the most precious, singular and primal moment in ALL our lives. We began at no other time than this very moment.

The question then becomes: “is human life valuable?”

If we determine that a human life indeed exists at conception, the question becomes, is it so valuable that we don’t squash it for ANY purpose, medical research or otherwise. If we try to have our cake and eat it too, we create a societal schizophrenia. You can’t take human value away AND keep it. With our right hand we are currently trying to honour the Universal Declaration of Human Life and with our left hand make life so cheap that it becomes medical research material.

If we remove a purely scientific observation to the start of human life, we have to use other definitions. But none are scientific or absolute. Typically, people comfortable with abortion and embryonic stem cell research will use psychosocial benchmarks to determine personhood. For example, they will often state that unless a developing child can think or feel pain, they are not human yet. But when exactly does the baby think “enough” or feel “enough” to qualify? This is impossible to determine. Furthermore, the faculty of thought and feeling is secondary to the individual. Does a man under anesthesia lose personhood? Of course not. They are temporarily lessened in their consciousness and will recover. On the other hand, a brain dead patient will never regain consciousness, and without artificial support, they will die. But a baby in utero will live unless artificially destroyed. They too, like the man under anesthesia, are only temporarily lessened in their consciousness.

Once we give arbitrary definitions to the origin of personhood, such as a type of cognitive function, we are now randomly throwing darts on a board and saying “aha! good enough for me.” Yet we are ignoring the elephant in the room: all faculties develop from an existing human. The human has to exist in one stage before he or she can move to the other. And no singular stage is more human than the other. It is all part of the spectrum of humanity. If we destroy an individual, no matter which stage they are at, we are choosing to artificially end a unique, viable human being. What else are they? There is no scientific or biological line that can be clearly established other than conception.

And as the United Nations declare, a person “has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Simply not hearing the screams of the embryo does nothing to erase the fact that a human life has been destroyed. The only thing it means is that he or she has been cleverly killed before their screams could ignite our conscience.

In vitro fertilization is legal. And it will continue to create embryos that are destroyed. Why not make the best of a bad situation? The wasteful treatment of human life already exists in the form of in vitro fertilization. Two wrongs suddenly make a right? To glamourize the de-humanization of embryos with the fragrance of medical research would come at the price of opening the door to a future with no human sanctity. Heck, marijuana is no longer a felony. Why not legalize heroine? Which brings us to our next point:

2. Slippery Slope

Those who would paint pro-lifers as chicken littles worried about the sky falling are conveniently ignoring history. Roe v Wade has slipped us into a nightmarish society in which third term babies can have their brains vaccuumed and skulls crushed. Under aged girls can have tax payer funded abortions without parental notification. Abortion procedures and “do it yourself” drugs are routinely used as after-the-fact contraception. It is hard to not believe in a slippery slope when you are constantly gaining speed down the hill.

Once embryonic stem cell research becomes status quo, human cloning and genetic engineering will be right around the corner. One of the most promising uses for embryonic stem cell research is a procedure known as “therapeutic cloning.” This procedure takes a patient’s (or someone else’s) DNA and removes the DNA inside a previously fertilized egg (from an in vitro clinic) and implants the new DNA into the egg. Then, gentle electrical stimuli spur the egg to replicate. Sound familiar? It should, because this is cloning. Pure and simple. Just like Dolly the sheep. The only difference between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning is the egg is not implanted in a uterus, but placed in a tissue environment (e.g.: the spinal cord) in hopes of replacing damaged tissue. After 10 plus years of frequent and regular state-approved cloning, the simple difference between implanting a clone into someone’s damaged pancreas and implanting a clone into a barren woman’s womb will begin to fade. Considerably. This has been the classic human behavioural pattern since recorded history. We touch before we sniff and we sniff before we taste. But we end up feasting nonetheless. Thankfully, Obama has created language that prevents human cloning. But just as Bush’s embryonic stem cell legislations can be pulverized, so can legal clauses like cloning restrictions.

In Conclusion

Once we shatter the frail line between the absolutely God-given sanctity of human life and the cheap, convenience-driven dispensability of human life, there will be no more barriers of protection from a future in which the definition of personhood undergoes even greater molestation. Germany’s doctrine of racial purification did not begin overnight. It originated in the womb of the mid 1800’s secular philosophies of Nietzche and Darwin’s removal of God’s image from mankind. It was in recovery of the Third Reich’s horrors that the United Nations designed and enforced the Universal Decleration of Human Rights. Have we so short a memory?…

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