Tuesday, May 31, 2005

More on stem cells

Christine Flowers is an attorney in Philadelphia and a pretty good writer in her own write. She gets a column now and again in the Philly Daily News that is worth reading. Today's topic -- the stem cell research debate.


SCIENTISTS are heroic people.
Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium and revolutionized the way that illnesses are diagnosed and treated. Louis Pasteur developed the vaccine that eliminated the scourge of rabies, a death sentence in the 19th century. Jonas Salk delivered us from the braces and iron lungs of polio, and removed the fear from parents' eyes.
Scientists are, in a way, instruments of the divine, exploring the intricacies of what can be seen and quantified in order to improve that which can't: the essence of life. But so many of them would reject that description, afraid to acknowledge any obligation to a higher authority, whether it be God, secular morality or ethics.
That tension between science and faith underlies many of the controversies of recent days. First among them is the battle over stem-cell research, guaranteed to become more bitter as Congress and President Bush butt heads on federal funding and ethical limitations. The debate is commonly framed as one between those who seek to alleviate suffering (the good guys) and those who, in the name of a rigid and twisted sense of morality, oppose experimentation on "pre-human" matter (the bad guys). Of course, the truth is somewhere in between those extremes, but the truth doesn't make for juicy sound bites.
Some scientists seem anxious to explore this brave new world of possibility, particularly since it holds great promise for curing debilitating diseases. But I have the suspicion that they would welcome any opportunity to push the envelope and journey into the unknown, even if the prospect for a social benefit was slim.
These are the Indiana Joneses of research, daredevils who chafe at limits and venerate experiment for experiment's sake.
This, in a strange sense, is their religion, and discovery is their god. Who cares that some things should be left untouched, cloaked in darkness to protect us from our baser instincts? Unfortunately, on those occasions where science was allowed to develop outside ethical constraints, we saw the tragic results: Josef Mengele and his human guinea pigs, Margaret Sanger and her belief in sterilizing the poor and uneducated, the Tuskegee residents who, without their knowledge, had their syphilis left untreated.
Interestingly, it has always been the most defenseless or marginalized in society who have been the target of these experiments in "progress."
Other scientists have been able to convince themselves that, regardless of the ethical problems their choices might present, the ends justify the means. They recognize that experimenting on animals is regrettable, especially if the animal suffers. But, they say, if the agony of those subjects yields a cure for cancer, it is a necessary evil. These are the people who do a cost-benefit analysis, and always accept the cost.
Still other scientists, the ones who think that knowledge is only as good as the purpose for which it is employed, realize that just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should actually do it. They flinch at the pain and suffering of innocents. But they are also aware that some things should never be done even if the results will yield immense benefits. These are the ones who would look at whatever medical advances might have been obtained through the Nazi experiments and recoil in horror at the thought of using them. They know that a poisoned tree yields rotten fruit.
I'm not saying that embryonic stem-cell research is comparable to Mengele's experiments. The mere thought is ridiculous. The Nazi doctor twisted the Hippocratic oath beyond recognition, doing harm for the greater glory of an evil empire.
There is no question that research on stem cells from embryos is done for a noble purpose, and it's difficult to see these day-old vessels of life as human. But we must ask: When does life, even in its most basic and rudimentary form, gain protection?
As the battle over late-term abortion has taught us, life risks destruction even at the moment of birth. So how can we expect people to care about an infinitesimal fragment of humanity?
The answer is we must expect them to care. Simply saying that an embryo has no moral weight is the easy way out of a complicated situation. We must make sure that scientists are limited in their race to the finish line, and that they are cautioned against, ironically, playing God.
Brilliant men and women of conscience are our last defense against a juggernaut of amoral experiments. You can forgive senators for political pandering. It is the scientists who must say: This far, but no farther, into the darkness.
If you like what she had to say, e-mail Chris at cflowers1961@yahoo.com.