Monday, August 01, 2005

Principle Over Politics or Vice Versa?

As you may know, a few years ago President Bush authorized, for the first time in the country's history, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. However, the research funding bill limited funding limiting that funding to be used on a fixed number of stem cell lines (stem cells descended from specific embryos); I believe it was seventy-two. In other words, researchers couldn't go out and get new stem cells, by harvesting new embryos, if they wanted to remain eligible for federal research money.

This seemed, to me anyway, to be a Solomon-like approach to the issue of embryonic stem cell funding. The law recognized the reality that research was being done on these seventy-two lines anyway, so the moral dilemna of whether or not harvesting embryos was tantamount to murder was avoided because they were already being used. The only decision to be made was, are the benefits of experimentation on these already-sacrificed embryos worth the expenditure of federal funds?

In the past couple of years, researchers have been disappointed with the initial results on embryonic stem cells, and the most promising research has been done using adult stem cells (generic cells that all of us have, and that are readily available to researchers without the moral issues that invariably accompany embryonic stem cells).

On Friday, Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) announced he would support the easing of the current federal funding ban on embryonic stem cell research by loosening the restrictions and allowing for the harvesting/collecting/acquiring of new embryos from the pool of surplus embryos that were created by parents for in vitro fertilization but never used.

Those in favor of relaxed restrictions argue that the embryos are most likely going to be destroyed (or will die in storage) anyway, so why not use them for research? Also, researchers have discovered that embryonic stem cells (all stem cells, actually) become useless after a certain number of replications/divisions, and lose the nondifferentiated attributes that researchers depend upon to try and convert them into specific-purpose cells, i.e., heart muscle cells, liver cells, etc. In short, the view seems to be that since the stem cell lines we're currently working with are becoming useless, and we have all of these embryos sitting there in liquid nitrogen, why don't we make federal funding available to buy and use these embryos for further experimentation?

To me, this reasoning ignores the principle behind the funding limitations; human life is sacrosanct and should not be arbitrarily ended to further medical research. Let me explain further.

There is no doubt that thousands of lives could be saved each year if only we had a sufficient number of organ donors in good health whose deaths could be predicted or controlled to coincide with efficient organ harvesting. The Chinese solution is to typematch their prisoners and coordinate executions with organ harvests... or to harvest certain organs like kidneys involuntarily from prisoners who aren't facing execution. We could do the same thing here. We could easily establish a DNA database of all death row inmates and execute them by simply letting them die once a suitable recipient needed their organs and the harvest was complete. After all, why should an innocent little girl die, and a kidney or liver or heart be wasted? Of course, not very many people want to slide down the slippery slope resulting from the support of the harvesting of organs from prison inmates, or from the poor who might wish to sell an extra kidney to a stranger for the money. After all, in many places in the world people have been kidnapped and their organs have been stolen.

Now, some will argue that embryos aren't human and are not entitled to the protections we afford human life. Where do we draw the line? Can aborted fetuses be kept alive, and a new abortion procedure developed, so that stem cells and organs can be harvested? Since elective late-term partial-birth abortion is legal, do we allow a woman in her eighth month to terminate her pregnancy and provide the fetus' organs for harvest? Certainly there are billions of stem cells in the expelled umbilical cord; let's sell those to the researchers and give the money (derived from federal taxes) either to the mother or the abortion clinic. What about people like Terri Schiavo? Certainly she must have had a bunch of good stuff that might have saved several lives. Why didn't we harvest her organs, because she wasn't going to be needing them. Where do we draw the line?

The time is coming, and soon, when we're going to have to stop ducking the question: when does human life begin, and when does it end? In the near future we will develop the technology to "grow" a human from embryo to full-term infant without it ever having to be inside a woman's body. Maybe we'll develop a way to use another animal, like a cow or a sheep or a chimpanzee... or a brain-dead woman. Maybe we'll develop an artificial womb. Whatever... but then we won't be able to avoid the question of what a human life really is anymore, or when it begins. Not unless we want to see companies growing humans by the boatloads... maybe genetically engineered with full manual dexterity and the ability to learn simple repetitive tasks but with no higher brain capability. Will these be the new slaves, able and willing to do the most menial of tasks for nothing more than mere substenance? Or will humans make something more sinister, like the Clone Army from Star Wars but infinitely more menacing?

I'm not Catholic, and I have some problems with established dogma (and more problems with the way the hierarchy of the Church functions, as exemplified by the pederast priest problems that were knowingly covered up). I don't agree that preventative contraception, such as condoms, that blocks fertilization is immoral. However, I do agree with Catholic thought on this issue: human life begins at conception and we must treat that life with the same reverence, respect, and protection that we offer newborn infants. This position is the only principled way that prevents the horrors that will inevitably occur as our technology increases to the point where we can intimately control the most minor aspects of our biology.

So, is Frist's change of heart a matter of principle over politics? Or, is he trying to stake out a political position that differentiates him from other potential presidential candidates at the expense of principles? I can't claim to see inside someone else's heart, or head. But I don't understand how someone could be against such research on principle and then, a few years later, switch sides.

It's either a human life, or it isn't. If it is, and I believe it is, then no human life has the right to arbitrarily end another human life whether or not one benefits. After all, isn't arbitrarily ending another human's life the very definition of murder?

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