Pushing the Ethical Envelope
by Kirsten Andersen


The public debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research reached critical mass this week as activists on both sides of the issue swarmed Washington to plead their cases before Congress. At stake is millions of dollars in federal funding of the research that ultimately destroys tiny human beings, but might be the key to curing several deadly diseases.

As the debate unfolds, the public has been treated to a rare glimpse of some of the ethical and moral decision-making that occurs behind the doors of America's cutting-edge laboratories. What we are finding out is that scientists live their lives -- and change ours -- according to a completely separate moral code than the rest of us. Their obligation is to the research -- exploring every path that can be taken, regardless of the cost. Whether the road leads to failure or even death is inconsequential. The quest is really for knowledge, with achievement being secondary. That said, it is easy to see why scientists are single-mindedly pursuing taxpayer support of their latest endeavor, embryonic stem cell research. To the scientists, the research is simply a new frontier that must be conquered.

The worldwide implications of what information we already have about stem cells are tremendous. These 'building blocks of life' can be prodded and manipulated to renew all kinds of human cells, such as heart, brain, and skin tissue. The researchers are promising almost magical cures to some of the world's most dreaded diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer if they are able to continue their study.

So what is all the controversy about? Stem cells cannot be harvested from human embryos without totally destroying the embryo itself. An embryo, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a human being at the earliest stage of life. An embryo is not an egg, and it is not a 'clump of cells.' It is the product of the union between egg and sperm, otherwise known as 'conception.' An embryo is a baby.

This sacrifice of human life in the name of medicine has rightfully offended many, but there are some who attempt to justify the cost. These supporters of embryonic stem cell research have subjected the public to a maddening display of selfishness in past weeks, culminating with a disgusting and exploitative parade of very young 'supporters.' For the past three days, parents of adorable children afflicted with horrible diseases have pushed these little ones (some as young as eight) in front of the news cameras to beg for the cures that they say can only come from embryonic stem cell research. The children’s eloquence on the issue is alarming, as is their adherence to the party line. These mere babes are far too young to understand the moral question involved in this debate; they only know what their well-meaning-but-selfish parents have told them. To put these kids on camera in all their innocent and disarming splendor to parrot their parents' ideas is reprehensible. They are far too young for such responsibility, as they cannot handle the consequences of their words. What will happen when a member of the very vocal opposition tells an eight-year-old point blank that he is a cold-blooded murderer because of his beliefs? No young child should be forced to publicly defend a value system that he doesn't yet understand.

Congress is currently debating legislation that would permit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, but the veto pen and the final decision rest with President Bush. The general consensus seems to be that the President is 'damned if he does and damned if he doesn't' permit federal funding of the research, but the man campaigned and was elected on a platform that included opposition to federal funding of any procedure that destroys human life -- including embryonic stem cell research. Breaking his promise now will be very politically destructive, as it will anger his base without gaining him any new ground with more liberal voters.

President Bush must keep his commitment to his smallest constituents, those without a voice or a vote. He ought to follow the example of Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who has been very outspoken in his opposition to embryonic stem cell research and has introduced legislation in the House to require that stem cells used in research only be obtained from life-friendly sources such as umbilical cord blood and adult humans (who are not killed during this procedure). Representative Smith is truly serving the interests of all of his constituents, even the ones who have no political value to him. Embryos cannot speak, vote, or give money to Smith's re-election campaign, but Smith tirelessly fights for their rights because it is the moral thing to do. President Bush would be wise to do the same.

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