Sunday, July 30, 2006

Stem Cell Stalemate

I asked my Sunday School class this morning a question. Enshrined in our religious heritage and law is the command, "Thou shalt not kill." Are there any legitimate exceptions? We came up with three: 1) wartime, 2) self-defense, and 3) capital punishment.

Of course, we could debate the nuances of each of these. For example, several religious traditions would deny there is such a thing as a "just war," while others would affirm the concept. Self defense depends on the circumstances, and even in the case of bodily attack, lethal force is not always appropriate. Capital punishment is justified in Scripture (Gen. 9:6), but in practice, there may be racial or economic inequities in the way it is administered.

On what basis do we destroy embryonic humans for the supposed betterment of others? I recognize that some do not accept the personhood of early embryos. But even among those who do (or at least who respect this idea), you may hear the argument, "Since they're going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn't we destroy the embryos so that some good may result?" This is an understandable question, but there are many flawed assumptions embedded within it.

First of all, the embryos are under the control of the families who produced them. They are now in frozen storage in fertility clinics. Their fate is not inevitable. The parents can choose to donate them to other childless couples. Such "embryo adoption" would give these embryonic humans a chance to live a full life.

Second, what is this "good" that may result? There are no currently usable medical therapies that utilize embryonic stem cells. On the other hand, there are 72 actual medical treatments utilizing adult stem cell sources. These are ethically non-problematic, and are saving lives right now. By the way, appealing to "good" in this way implies that the only "good" that human beings can have is for the parts they supply others. Don't go there.

We began this discussion by asking what circumstances might justify an exception to society's rigid rules against killing. Which of these exceptions applies to embyros? This is not war, this is not self-defense, and we certainly can't claim that embryos have committed a capital offense. Indeed, embryos are the most innocent members of our society.

Getting Started

This Web log reflects my own views about human life, and what gives each one of us dignity and value. In spite of new biotechnologies and the marvels brought about by medical science, the basics of our existence haven't changed throughout history.

What does it mean to be human? Those who adhere to a high Judeo-Christian perspective believe it means a great deal. Others hold to a secular humanism that defines man in reductionist terms, a mere product of time and chance.

Is every human being a person? To be a person is to be a member of the moral community, to have moral worth. This blog will defend the conception view of personhood: a human being is a person from the moment of conception and at every subsequent moment. In other words, a human being is a person by virtue of being a human being. To put it another way: there is no such thing as a human non-person.

The nature of humanity informs many major issues in our public discourse: abortion, reproductive technologies, human embryonic stem cell research, cloning, assisted suicide, euthanasia, genomics, and resource allocation. Let's talk - your comments are welcome!