Wednesday, December 12, 2007

All I want for Christmas...

…is one of your sweet sweet…………. skin cells? The New York Times reports

In the ongoing struggle of protecting the sanctity of human life at all stages (yes, even in the teenage years), the storm cloud of controversy looming over embryonic stem cell research has been fierce for the past decade. I am glad such controversy took hold rather than complacency and an overlooking of moral implications for “the greater good” – a very selective greater good if you ask me. However, it seemed to be a never ending battle, perhaps until now. The moral debate will go on forever, but the practical one may end within another decade.

Dr. James Thompson was part of one of two laboratories to first extract stem cells from embryos in 1998. Today he is part of more research which has found “a new way to turn ordinary human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without ever using a human embryo.” How fascinating! I hope my personal enthusiasm is contagious. The new technique is basically just adding four genes to ordinary adult skin cells. In the interview with the New York Times, Dr. Thompson said, “It will not be long before the stem cell wars are a distant memory. A decade from now, this will be just a funny historical footnote.”

Tell us more Dr. Thompson. The NY Times reports his ethical concerns, “If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.” Obviously, he eventually decided to go through with it, reasoning that the embryos they use are unwanted from fertility clinics and would be disposed of anyway.

Not to downplay or insult Dr. Thompson’s moral dilemma, but I would just like to sidestep here and dig a little bit. I have heard this argument before: well, they were going to be thrown away anyway, we might as well make good use of them. I have never heard anyone say: well, that mother doesn’t want her baby anyway, we might as well make good use of it and start the drug testing. Even if all abortions became illegal, and for some reason everyone stopped wanting babies, I still don’t imagine testing facilities being created for the sole purpose of making use of unwanted humans. If we really understood the continuum of life – seeing beyond appearances – then we would value the simple (which isn’t really that simple) as much as the complex as both possess the dignity of human life. Furthermore, if we really understood how to value life in the first place (allow it this dignity), there would be less confusion over what is life. Technology in the form of machinery or medicine and so forth should be valued by its usefulness, but man is not another technology to be judged by his societal input. If utility is the measure of a man, then perhaps embryonic stem cell research and prostitution should be re-evaluated.

Before beginning research, Dr. Thompson consulted with two ethicists at his university (the University of Wisconsin), Dr. Fost, a physician, and Ms. Charo, a law professor. The NY Times quotes an impressed Dr. Fost, “It is unusual in the history of science for a scientist to really want to think carefully about the ethical implications of his work before he sets out to do it.” If this is true, it seriously concerns me. It brings us back to the haunting question of whether the ends justify the means. In the 8th grade I openly admitted to my Louisiana history class that I thought they do. Now I feel trapped in a bad science-fiction time warp where I’m back in the 8th grade except everyone else has adopted my view and I’ve changed.

Anyhow, I am thankful for this hopeful departure of research using embryos and for its replacement with a more humane approach. As I mentioned earlier, the moral implications for embryonic stem cell research have not changed, and we will no doubt continue to fight the relativistic, ends-justifying-means mindset and its manifestations such as this.

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