Thursday, July 27, 2006

Stem Cells: Science at the Steps of Decency

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Victims of a wealth of diseases, disorders, and crippling injuries enjoyed hope for what lasted only a short time, when on last Thursday President Bush threw down his gloves and swaggered “Bring ‘em on” to scientists and free-thinkers alike:
“I hold to the principle that we can harness the promise of technology without becoming slaves to technology and ensure that science serves the cause of humanity. If we are to find the right ways to advance ethical medical research, we must also be willing when necessary to reject the wrong ways. For that reason, I must veto this bill.”
His only veto of his entire presidential career, I guess we should have expected it would have come in the form of stalling scientific progress. Science and Ethics are always considered polar opposites when we listen to the perspectives of those on the Pro-Life side of the debate. However, this is a gross oversimplification that is simply not true: science and morality are more often interwoven than not, research scientists themselves being some of the most honest, truth-abiding people out there in our society. I pose this question: what type of person would choose a job that paid little, expected lots, and placed intense scrutiny from educated peers on his or her ongoing research constantly? There is no room for intellectual dishonesty with an occupation rooted in empirical evidence, where logic and honesty are the only realities possible.

Science and Ethics are particularly in agreement when it comes to the issue of embryonic stem cells, and to better understand this we need to deconstruct the sale of Morality by our opponents.

President Bush said in his veto photo-op:
“Yet, as science brings us ever closer to unlocking the secrets of human biology, it also offers temptations to manipulate human life and violate human dignity.”
Bush’s justification for his stance on embryonic stem cell research picks and chooses tenets of a morality that he cares to employ and to preach (protecting the sanctity of aspiring life), while skipping over others (protecting the sanctity of existing life). He packages his own version of morality and sells it to the nation as evidence for his actions, one of the reasons even his political party, and some of them Pro-Lifers, are divisive about the issue. This dissent comes from the same group of misfits that all recently agreed to embrace the Iraq War—yes, that one nation that has descended into chaos under our watch— as a key issue this fall. How could it be that a bloc of politicians can agree to run on the war amidst failing public opinion and security, with a linearly increasing civilian death toll, but not seem to get their opinions squared away with Bush’s principled delivery? It seems there are some forces at play here that rival the mystique of quantum physics.

Well, maybe not. President Bush again highlights the inherent variability of his morality by his response to stem cell research. He claims that science tempts us to “manipulate human life,” which it does. In fact, we do so on a day-to-day basis, and are lauded for our achievements. Human egg cells are routinely fertilized and destroyed in an unnatural laboratory setting, cell division and thus the growth of new and healthy cells is inhibited by chemotherapy, cadavers are donated for medical research and practice, organs donated and transplanted hither and thither, volunteers for clinical studies on drugs that need to be proven to work, and the list goes on. All of these endeavors were absolutely necessary for science and technology to have advanced as far as they have, and there’s still an infinite amount more we need to accomplish. Bush asserts that his stance on stem cell research is because it is temptation to manipulate life, an ethically-challenged position that is provincial to the myriad other ways that scientists do—and must—manipulate life to effect change, an ethical decision made by those who are passionate about engendering a more enjoyable life for society through advances in science.

While the case against abortion on the grounds of morality might be tenable through a moral principle to uphold life at any cost (no matter how insanely intrusive this compels our government to be), that same principle does not hold water with this issue, as I’ve explained before. Is it really an ethical decision to assume a 5-day-old embryo (or blastocyst), a structure comparatively not unlike that of a lone sperm or ovum, warrants the same rights and liberties as that of an independently-living human being, even when this decision trumps the rights of the suffering to potential panaceas? What’s more, opponents often cite the dreaded slippery slope of such a moral distinction between life and non-life, saying that if the “utilitarian” case for ESC research is made, what’s to stop “immoral” scientists from pushing the envelope and claiming embryos in the 1st and fetuses in the 2nd and 3rd trimester are also non-life? This is preposterous in the sense that the envelope can more easily be pushed in the opposite direction: if 100 cells constitute human life, why not 50, or 10, or even a lone sperm and egg, seeing as how they, too, have the potential to merge and implant in the uterus and lead to a pregnancy? Are we to then conclude that male masturbation and a woman’s period are also morally reprehensible?

If we extend the same morality inherent in Pro-Lifers fighting for human rights for the developing fetus to the prospect of scientific research with blastocysts, we come to the conclusion that scientists are operating with a similar morality in mind: to defend the sanctity and security of human life at all costs. We manipulate life in the way that science has always done so, with respect for our fellow man and the dignity of mankind, to aim for advancing our consciousness and understanding our purpose on this earth. In the context of ESC research, our best hypothesis is that this branch of science will offer tremendous help in understanding developmental biology and the mechanisms of cancers and genetic disorders, in testing new drugs, and even in cell-based therapies involving healthy tissue generation. It would be downright, dare I say, immoral to pick-and-choose certain aspects of morality but not others to justify stalling this research.

Alas, that is the key difference between our morality and Bush’s: we do not screen ethics for principles that best suit us and our purposes (read: riling up the rapture-ready conservative bible-thumping base for an election year), nor do we flip-flop on our commitment to sustaining and promoting the welfare of life. We unequivocally and morally advance society through intellectual stages of development as we have done since the beginning of time, desiring nothing less than continuing the pursuit of unknown knowledge, for ours and our children’s sake.

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