The National Stem Cell Debate: The Collision of Science, Religion, and Politics

Every day, millions of people suffer and die from degenerative illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer disease, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, various forms of cancer. Stem cells are the building blocks of multi-cellular life, dividing and differentiating into the more than two hundred specialized cell types that comprise the cellular profile of the human body. Many scientists believe that stem cell research is the key to developing new treatments for these serious diseases and, as such, have advocated for more funding of stem cell research. By studying stem cells, and in particular embryonic stem cells, scientists believe we can replicate the processes of human cellular generation and thereby more effectively combat human degenerative diseases. However, despite its potential for delivering hope to millions of people suffering from degenerative diseases, some individuals see stem cell research, which results in the destruction of human embryos, as crossing the moral boundaries of proper medical research and as being inconsistent with certain religious and ethical principles regarding the sanctity of human life. Admittedly, embryonic stem cell research is legitimately a morally questionable and perhaps even undesirable practice, and for this reason is a fiercely debated topic in the political arena. Yet, the issue’s perceived morality and ethics alone should not be viewed as adequate reason to legally prohibit it. The question at the heart of this battle is whether the religious and ethical views of a vocal minority can ultimately impede, or legally proscribe, the kind of research that has the potential to help so many people. Indeed, sectarian groups with moral reservations about this research cannot and should not be able to impose their doctrinaire value system on all individuals.

There are two major sources of embryos from which embryonic stem cells are harvested: embryos created through in vitro fertilization and aborted fetuses. In the first case, couples undergoing in vitro fertilization procedures who have more embryos than they need or want have the option of letting the embryos die on their own, giving them to another infertile couple, or donating them to be used for research. In the second case, scientists extract stem cells from aborted fetuses after getting a signed consent from the mother who has independently and willingly chosen to have this abortion. These embryos would have been discarded if scientists did not use them for research purposes. Opponents of stem cell research view embryos as having all of the moral and other attributes of more mature human life and regard embryonic research as the equivalent of harvesting and experimenting on human beings, in essence killing some people with the vague promise of treating others. Central to the stem cell opposition movement lies activists of the pro-life movement who view human life’s value and beginning to be from the time of conception and thus believe that the destruction of a human as tantamount to murder.

The argument that an early embryo can be regarded as having symbolic moral value, as a potential human person, and therefore worthy of respect is perfectly legitimate, but equally viable is the belief that the embryo’s developmental stage and the objective of the research must be considered when determining the acceptability of embryonic stem cell research. Many countries accommodate for both of these viewpoints as they set a time limit for research, which is usually fourteen days, the time just before the fetus begins to form, which is considered the definitive beginning of human life for many. However, what is unacceptable, and ultimately corrosive, and divisive to society is when one of these groups attempts to impose their personal moral doctrine on one another.

Many opponents of embryonic stem cell research share the view that it raises some of the same moral and ethical issues as abortion does. There is a deep-seated religious orientation to the stem cell research opposition, and many religious leaders have taken up the issue as a fundamental religious issue. For example, Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life,

“Human embryos obtained in vitro are human beings and are subjects with rights; their dignity and right to life must be respected from the first moment of their existence.”

Of course, not all religious leaders oppose stem cell research: some Jewish and more liberal Christian groups support embryonic stem cell research. And some social conservatives — including, most famously, Nancy Reagan whose husband, former President Ronald Reagan an icon of the modern American conservative movement who battled Alzheimer’s Disease — have come out in favor of stem cell research. Similarly, Bill Frist, a former U.S. senator and Republican majority leader from Tennessee declared in a speech on July 29, 2005,

“I am pro-life. I believe human life begins at conception. I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported. … An embryo is nascent human life. This position is consistent with my faith. But, to me, it isn’t just a matter of faith. It’s a fact of science.”

Not surprisingly, public opinion on the topic is also divided. According to a 2010 national poll, about sixty-eight percent of Americans believe that the value of conducting stem cell research for purposes of finding new treatments to serious diseases outweighs the “sanctity of life” concerns regarding the treatment of human embryos which, if not used for research, would be simply discarded.

In many respects, as indicated by this pole, the nation is in a moral deadlock. The question for all of us is whether we can bridge the gap on this important issue and forge some national consensus on how to balance stem cell research and respect for human life or we will be stymied by the political rhetoric and the polarization around this issue and perhaps miss significant opportunities to ease human sufferings. For example, some countries accommodate both viewpoints by setting a time limit for research, usually fourteen days from conception, the time just before the fetus begins to form, which is considered by many as being the definitive beginning of human life.

When debating a matter like this with such moral and ethical obscurity and ambiguity, we must focus on and use arguments that contain values that we as a nation share and can relate to and that we recognize as being reasonable. One of the defining qualities of our nation is the freedom we have to share our views. Paradoxically, what increasingly threatens our ability to move forward as a nation, and to tackle the range of challenges we face — climate change; poverty; education; and. yes, stem cell research — is our inability to move past political rhetoric and posturing. As the public opinion poll cited above indicates, the issue of stem cell research is not “black and white,” “ground-breaking cures vs. murder” to most Americans. Accordingly, it is irresponsible that some of our political and religious leaders have characterized, or perhaps more accurately, caricatured the issue of stem cell research in the stark tones that they have to date. Of course, stem cell research raises important ethical and moral issues that require sober and careful analysis. But that does not mean there should not be a compromise to be struck, among reasonable individuals, on an issue that has the potential to do so much good for so many. We must talk in terms of logical consistency. We simply cannot afford to have the millions of our fellow citizens, suffering as they are from such serious diseases, to be held hostage by those who zealotry and unwillingness to acknowledge the validity of viewpoints that do not adhere to their orthodoxy.

Philip Clark
Age 14, Grade 9
The Dalton School
Silver Key

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