2016-06-30
There are two sides to every question, Lord Herbert Samuel pointed out almost a century ago, because when there no longer are two sides, it ceases to be a question. Lately, sides have been forming around the question of stem cell research. In November 1998, researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins University found that human embryos with cells in the earliest stages of development hold out hope for cures for diseases as diverse and devastating as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes.

Should they be used?

The preponderance of logic comes down on the side of those who wish to permit such research to continue and expand over the coming years.

Embryonic stem cells are, of course, available because of a comparatively new phenomenon--the ability of doctors to fertilize an egg outside the

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  • uterus. For many couples, such fertilization is their one hope for conceiving a child who is biologically theirs. And because most of the fertilized eggs implanted into the woman's uterus will not "take," far more eggs are fertilized than are needed. Thus, once the woman becomes pregnant (perhaps several times), the remaining eggs are very often destroyed. It is estimated that currently there are approximately 100,000 embryos in fertility clinic freezers that will never be used.

    Opponents argue that these fertilized eggs are the biological, and therefore moral, equivalent of human beings and that such research amounts to medical experimentation on, and murder of, human beings. If true, such experimentation would be grossly immoral. You don't murder some innocent people to save or improve the lives of others. (Even in "just wars," the death of innocents is justified only when they are the unintended but inevitable, as when bombing a legitimate military target will kill innocent people. "Just war" doctrines wouldn't permit killing as an end in itself, even to shorten the war and save lives.)

    But if fertilized eggs truly are the equivalent of human life, then why hasn't there been a similar hue and cry over these past years at the discarding of fertilized eggs? In truth, as former Florida Senator Connie Mack, who is pro-life, argues, "as long as the fertilized egg is not destined to be placed in a uterus, it cannot become life." In other words, a fertilized egg is not life, because a sperm and an egg alone can't make life; you also need a womb.

    I understand (even if I don't usually agree with) many of the arguments of the pro-life forces on abortion, but their refusal to distinguish between a fertilized egg (which was created independent of any sexual relationship and is now in a freezer) and a fetus inside a mother's womb is not reasonable.

    I would submit that equating a fertilized egg with a human life is an act of faith. I certainly believe people have a right to accept theological premises that do not seem reasonable to someone outside their faith. I don't expect others, for instance, to accept my belief that God chose my ancient Israelite ancestors to make Himself known to the world. Nor can I ask them to be bound by my faith.

    Perhaps a more pertinent parallel is once from the Catholic tradition. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council accepted the doctrine of transubstantiation as official dogma. This asserted that the wafer used at the Mass was miraculously transformed into the body of Jesus. The wafer was thenceforth to be regarded

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  • not as a symbolic representation of Jesus but as his actual body. Just how literally Christians accepted this teaching is exemplified in the writings of a leading preacher of the 13th century, Berthold of Regensburg. He explained that Christ, though present in the wafer, does not allow himself to be seen in it for "who would like to bite off the little head, or the little hands, or the little feet of a little child?"

    Obviously, for Catholics who believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, the wafer truly is the body of Jesus. But this is a theological dogma, not one that it is reasonable to expect non-Catholics to accept--otherwise, we'd all be Catholics. The same applies to equating a fertilized egg with a life. People have no right to insist that others be bound by their theological, as opposed to rationally argued, premises, particularly when human lives and human suffering might be at stake.

    If, one day, stem cell research does bring about cures for some of these awful diseases, opponents of this research can show their disapproval by refusing cures based on what they regard as immoral medical procedures. That will be their choice and an idealistic one. But to deny others who see their arguments as wrongheaded the possibility of such cures strikes me as wrong, both on intellectual and moral grounds.



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