Saturday, March 14, 2009

False Choice?

Once in a while you hear an issue phrased in a different way than usual, and it makes you see it in a whole new light. I had such a moment the other day.

I was listening to a podcast of Dennis Miller's always entertaining radio show, and Dennis took a call from Steve in Indianapolis about the executive order to extend federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Steve said his wife had raised the point that bald eagles' nests, and by extension eagles' eggs, are federally protected. You can get into serious trouble with the authorities for destroying the eggs. The implied question was, if the egg is not an eagle but only a potential eagle, why are human embryos not protected as well?

This sounds like a trick question. The answer would come back that the bald eagle is an endangered species. Every egg destroyed means one less eagle, causing the population to dwindle further. There is no shortage, on the other hand, of human beings. In fact, a lot of people think there are too many of us as it is and our overall numbers should be reduced.

But think about the implications of this explanation. The eagles are protected because, as a society, we have decided that their lives have value. If we didn't, we would not care whether or not they became extinct. That raises the question, do we not also value human life and, if so, does that value not extend to incipient forms of life, the same as the case of the eagle? Or is it, in both cases, simply a matter of managing population numbers?

You do not need to be some kind of religious fundamentalist to have a respect and regard for human life. And I think it is safe to assume that few would even think of using taxpayer money to experiment with human embryos if it did not potentially mean saving the lives of human beings. It is not a simple or easy moral question. Perhaps we can sidestep the moral dilemma by limiting research to embryos that would be discarded anyway. But not really, if we decide that an embryo's life was equivalent to a human life. We do not routinely harvest organs from people in comas because they would just be going to waste. We accord human life more respect than that. So there really is no way of getting completely away from the ethical question.

In the end, the decision to harvest stem cells from embryos is one of those trade-offs that we make in life. Not all of us will be totally certain that doing this is without negative moral consequence, but we hope that the good it does will at least outweigh the bad. And that is what bothered me about President Obama's remarks when he signed the executive order last Monday extending federal stem cell research funding beyond the limited lines authorized by his predecessor. He called the tension between science and morality "a false choice." One only has to recall experiments justified in the name of science, from Nazi Germany to the Tuskegee Airmen, to feel a shiver go up one's spine on hearing a national leader assert that. I'm not saying Obama made the wrong choice, only that he portrayed it as morally unambiguous and not as the trade-off it was.

Anyway, add to your presidential listening glossary the phrase "restore science to its rightful place" and substitute "funnel more money to universities," since federal funding, not federal permission, is always the issue. As it happens, a number companies (with names like PrimeCell Therapeutics, Stemnion, Cellerant Therapeutics and Geron) have been spending lots of private investor money on stem cell research for years. Private companies have never been banned from using embryonic stem cells for research. A fair amount of their research, however, has been in the promising area of adult stem cells, which avoids the moral trade-off, since these do not require a the killing of an embryo.

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