Conversations: Stem-cell Research


Helena
Qualms about embryonic stem-cell research are obscene. Stem-cell research has been one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine. It could offer therapeutic breakthroughs for every disease or injury process that human beings suffer—for the simple reason that embryonic stem cells can become any tissue in the human body.

Sappho
And this research may also be essential for our understanding of cancer, along with a wide variety of developmental disorders. Now, given these facts, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the promise of stem-cell research.

Galene
That’s all very well and good, but research on embryonic stem cells entails the destruction of three-day-old human embryos. This should give us pause.

Sappho
Of course! There are major ethical issues at play here, and we should consider those carefully. Let’s look at the details: a three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all.

Galene
Following this line of arguing, if I am concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present me with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.

Sappho
You could put it that way.

Helena
Also, in this context it is worth remembering that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury his remains in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such.

Galene
A person who has died, regardless of age, has lived a life – however short. And hopefully, everything was done to ensure that this human being lived a full and happy life. Can the same be said of this three-day-old human being? Furthermore, with regard to ethics, there is a crucial difference between a fly and a human!

Sappho
Is a collection of 150 cells a human being? Is a collection of cells without a brain of its own or even neurons (667 times smaller than the brain of a fly) a human being?

Galene
Even if it is hard to argue that a three-day-old collection of cells is equivalent to a human being, ethically speaking, surely we should consider the potential of the blastocyst to become a fully developed human?

Sappho
Well, given our recent advances in genetic engineering, almost every cell in your body is a potential human being. The potentiality argument, therefore, is not that compelling. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings, so to speak. However science-fiction this may sound, it is a fact. The argument based on a cell’s potential gets us absolutely nowhere.

Helena
True, but let us assume, for the moment, that every three-day-old human embryo has a soul worthy of our moral concern. We can see that this line of arguing leads to an equally pointless pursuit.

Galene
Why?

Helena
Consider the fact that embryos at this stage of their existence occasionally split, becoming separate people (identical twins). Is this a case of one soul splitting into two? Furthermore, two embryos sometimes fuse into a single individual, called a chimera. Someone you know may have developed in this way. In fact, you may have developed in this way!

Sappho
I guess theologians are probably struggling even now to determine what becomes of the extra human soul in such a case.

Helena
Quite. So I put it to you, isn’t it time we admitted that this arithmetic of souls does not make any sense? The naive idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible. It is also morally indefensible, given that it now stands in the way of some of the most promising research in the history of medicine. These beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings.

Galene
Why should people not believe that “life starts at the moment of conception.” That is to say, why should this belief lead to ethical problems?

Sappho
These people often believe there are souls in each of these blastocysts and that the interests of one soul—the soul of a little girl with burns over 75 percent of her body, say—cannot trump the interests of another soul, even if that soul happens to live inside a Petri dish.

Helena
I agree. This kind of resistance to embryonic stem-cell research is, at best, uninformed. Naturally, there are important ethical questions we should ask ourselves here, but it is fair to say that the metaphysical only clouds the main issue here: the relief of human suffering.

Sappho
I would go further. There is, in fact, no moral reason for unwillingness to fund this work. We should throw immense resources into stem-cell research, and we should do so immediately. Largely because of what some people believe about souls, we are not doing this. The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religion and “morality”—so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated—is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 11-12)

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