It’s campaign season, which means there is plenty of mud being tossed back and forth between candidates, especially on campaign commercials. These commercials are notorious for taking complex political debates and boiling them down into misleading sound bites. This "dumbing down" of political debate is always unfortunate, but it becomes tragic when sound bites endanger the lives of vulnerable human beings.
Case in point: a couple of candidates have released campaign commercials featuring Michael J. Fox. Mr. Fox, who starred in the “Back to the Future” movies, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and after seeing him on TV, every decent American would sympathize with his struggle. Even though it is natural to be sympathetic, we must still rationally consider the content of his message. Mr. Fox asks us to support the use of "life-saving stem cells" in medical research. He also leaves the impression that some people are against using "life-saving stem cells." The problem is that Fox does not differentiate between the use of therapies utilizing adult stem cells, the harvesting of which poses no ethical problems, and therapies involving embryonic stem cells, the harvesting of which results in profound ethical problems.
As we have pointed out in the past, embryonic stem cell "research" is ethically indefensible. Most cells in our bodies settle into a particular "identity." If they are skin cells, for example, their "parents" were skin cells, and their "children" will be skin cells. Stem cells, on the other hand, have the ability to be transformed into more than one kind of cell. For example, a single stem cell is capable of becoming a white blood cell, a neuron cell, or a cardiac muscle cell. Stem cells have important therapeutic value because, by manipulating these stem cells, scientists can potentially find cures for many diseases.
Parkinson’s is an example of a disease that may one day be cured with stem cells. It results from a brain malfunction that prevents neurons from producing enough of a chemical called dopamine. If stem cells could be manipulated to become neurons, then perhaps these new, healthy neurons could start producing dopamine, and Parkinson’s disease would be cured.
There is a great deal of hope surrounding stem cell therapies, and in most cases Christians are in full support of this exciting research. Most stem cells, after all, are obtained from legitimate sources like umbilical cords, bone marrow, and fat. Nobody is harmed when stem cells are collected from these sources, and a great many people are helped. Unfortunately, there is another source for stem cells which is much less benign. Embryonic stem cells are collected from human beings who are at a very early stage in development. When stem cells are harvested from embryos, the embryo is always killed. Some scientists justify the killing of embryonic human beings on the grounds that their cells may potentially benefit other human beings who are further along in their development.
Destroying embryonic human beings in the hope that other human beings may be helped is morally problematic. This utilitarian logic—that it is okay to kill one person so long as it may help another—is frightening. While people who advocate embryonic stem cell research are often eager to help ailing men and women, their means to that end do not pass ethical muster. Not even close.
Americans should oppose embryonic stem cell research on principle—even if such research is found to be useful. All people are created equal and are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights, the foremost of which is the right to life. Neither our humanity nor our dignity depends on our age, size or location. Human beings at an early stage of development do not have less intrinsic worth than human beings at a later stage in development. Older people do not have greater worth, value or dignity than their younger counterparts. Big people are not worth more than small ones. People who live in nursing homes do not have less dignity than those who live at the Ritz-Carlton. And the fact that someone else may benefit from another’s death does not give us the right to sacrifice the other. This is ethics 101.
Advocates of embryonic stem cell research are prone to over hype the utility of such research. Just this week a study was published reminding us once again how little success scientists have had developing usable treatments with embryonic stem cells. The study dealt with an attempt to cure Parkinson’s disease. Embryonic stem cells were transferred into the brains of mice who were suffering from a disease similar to Parkinson’s. Initially, scientists were hopeful because the mice appeared to be cured of the disease. However, bad news came a few weeks later when autopsies were performed on the mice. Every single mouse that received embryonic stem cells had developed brain tumors.
Tumor development is a recurring problem when it comes to embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells tend to create cancer-like growths. This is one of the main reasons that, after years and years of research, not a single treatment developed with embryonic stem cells has ever been approved for clinical trial. The situation is much different when it comes to adult stem cells, which have yielded many beneficial therapies.
Still, it cannot be stressed too much: even if embryonic stem cell therapies were shown to be spectacularly successful, the ethical barriers would remain. This is a road we do not want to go down. We do not want to be a nation that is willing to kill the weak for the sake of the strong. We shouldn’t even kill the weak for the sake of the weak! Again and again, throughout our nation’s history, we have been tempted to forget that all men are created equal. All people—rich or poor, black or white, young or old—are endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life.
Each generation of American’s has been tempted to abandon our founding ideals. God forbid that we should succumb to that temptation.