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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2001

Right to life qualified by stem cell research

We declare as free Americans that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life.” We enjoy a civil right to life in this country. But depending on which way the federal government goes on embryonic stem cell research, the inalienable right to life clause in our Declaration of Independence may have to be modified to accommodate exceptions to the rule.

I don't pretend to understand the intricacies involved in the clinical experimentation being debated. Yet the central issue is as straightforward as they come: Is the destruction of a human embryo to potentially advance medical science morally acceptable and, if so, should it be funded by the federal government?

But, as opponents of the research maintain, it's not that simple. The pinpoint embryo dividing and growing in the petri dish is uniquely human in all ways cellular. At fertilization the embryo is genetically stamped as belonging only to the human species. We were all there once. Given time, the embryo is destined to develop into a walking, talking, adult human being. Upon that being we confer the inalienable right to life.

Only now we're qualifying that basic right to life to exclude the earliest period of human existence. We're on the verge, as a nation, of deciding that an indisputably living, human embryo, can be killed to further medical research. The embryos, which cannot survive the experimentation, are, in a sense, being dehumanized, so as to promote public acceptance of their use as a means to an end.

Consider the chilling parallel between the justifications offered now for human embryonic cell research and those offered by German researchers at Nuremberg for experiments performed at Dachau. The similarities bear close scrutiny if only to embrace a serious shift in thinking with eyes wide open. Dr. C. Christopher Hook, from the Mayo Clinic, drew the comparisons during his testimony, as a private citizen, before a House subcommittee.

“German researchers on trial defended themselves on the following grounds: (1) a great need allegedly existed for the research to save the lives of soldiers and sailors, (2) the subjects of the experiments were purportedly already targeted to die, therefore, (3) we should not let this valuable commodity, this chance to learn in ways we otherwise could not, be wasted.”

The same arguments are being made to Congress and the President on the wisdom of human embryo research (i.e., embryonic stem cells can save lives, the embryos are already targeted to be discarded, why waste what can be a valuable commodity?). But once federal policy changes and society gradually becomes desensitized to the dehumanization of human life - albeit at its most primitive stage - will it be easier to move down the slippery slope to devalue human life at other stages of development or deterioration?

Will a society deadened to the destruction of human embryos for their stem cell value agree to cheapen the lives of the old and infirm, of the demented, of the terminally diseased? When supporting life is no longer cost-effective and resources are increasingly limited, decisions must be made. Will a premium be placed on one life at the expense of another? If human life can be created and destroyed by scientists for the express purpose of extracting embryonic stem cells - as was done recently in the United States - look how easy it is to establish a pecking order of humans with an unassailable right to life and those whose right is deemed less absolute for utilitarian purposes.

At this juncture it is not an absolute that human embryos are the best source for stem cells needed to research various human diseases. The jury is still out on alternative sources like adult stem cells or umbilical cords. Yes, there are humans suffering from incurable diseases and, yes, there is the technology to experiment for cures with human embryos. But neither is reason enough to sacrifice one slice of humanity for another.

Some truths are self-evident. They don't change with the times or the technology. The human right to life is one of those. It must remain inviolate or nothing else matters.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer. E-mail her at mjohanek@theblade.com.

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