I just finished reading a fascinating (though lengthy) article on the fate of embryos called Souls on Ice: America’s Embryo Glut and the Wasted Promise of Stem Cell Research. This ties in well to some things we’ve been discussing into my (occasionally though not usually) enlightening course on medical ethics.
In brief, the article discusses how the massive use of fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization have led to the existence of thousands of frozen embryos– more than will ever be implanted, gestated, and born. There are only a few options for embryos: implantation, indefinite freezing, destruction through thawing, or destruction through medical research.
Many people who did not hesitate to undergo in vitro fertilization procedures now hesitate to donate their frozen embryos for research, and those embryos are accumulating in warehouses… somewhere. And embryonic stem cell research, contrary to some popular belief I’ve encountered, is not illegal. Rather, Bush vetoed federal funding for embryonic research (excepting a few pre-existing lines), but several states and many universities have procured other sources of funding to make up for the shortfall.
As for the ethics of it all, one of the weakest arguments Christians make for not pursuing embryonic stem cell research (and this one was made to me within the last week) is that somatic stem cells can be used for everything that embryonic stem cells can be used for. This is ludicrous as stem cells are by definition more pluripotent than somatic stem cells. In other words, embryonic stem cells removed early in development can differentiate into many types of tissue that somatic stem cells removed from adults simply cannot.
Another flawed argument often presented goes thus: “There are absolutely no medical applications from embryonic stem cell research.” Reply: Of course not- there hasn’t been much of it. In the 1950’s no one used the argument “there are absolutely no medical applications for DNA research” because there simply wasn’t a state of knowledge available that would lead to viable therapies. Seriously, why would many of the premiere medical researchers be publicly bemoaning the federal funding ban if embryonic stem cells were really nothing new?
The strong arguments against stem cell research are based on the moral status of the embryo. If an 8- or 16-cell embryo has the same moral value as an adult human, then pursuing embryonic stem cell research is tantamount to murder. In fact, these arguments are compelling and unavoidable if one believes the Bible is the word of God.
Of course, these arguments are only strong if one agrees with conservative Christians that the early embryo is of the same moral value as an adult- a conclusion not reached by many secular ethicists and liberal Christians with a less strict application of Biblical precepts to modern existence.
While I believe embryos are worthy of respect, I don’t assign them the same moral worth as myself, or someone dying of a possibly curable disease. In other words, destroying them needlessly would be wrong, as they represent potential human beings. But the needs of fully conscious humans with full personhood should not be secondary to an 8-cell blastocyst that no one has a problem with freezing. And I will continue to hope that embryonic stem cell research will be one area in the “culture war” where conservative Christians won’t succeed, because that triumph could hurt us all.