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Exploiting 'The Least of These' - Embryos and Justice

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Monday, March 16, 2009

Exploiting 'The Least of These' - Embryos and Justice

March 17, 2009

A sure way to make huge strides in the treatment and cure of cancer is to divide a thousand or so randomly selected adults into two groups. One will be the control group while the other will be subject to possible carcinogens. We would learn much more than we with lab rats. But there is a problem: such experiments are thoroughly immoral.

When human subjects are used in clinical trials for new drugs and medical procedures, it is only with proper informed consent and strict ethical guidelines. Killing or knowingly causing long-term debility is well outside the range of acceptable. As Alan Milstein, a lawyer who specializes in bioethics told students at the University of Virginia Law School, “A successful result will never make an unethical experiment ethical.”

While there may be a handful of radically utilitarian outliers who would disagree, it is safe to say that nearly everyone would agree. By “nearly everyone” I am including our president.

Yet on last Monday, President Obama signed an executive order making this common sense rule null and void and he did so with the grateful acclamation of many scientists.

For years some scientists have wanted a free hand to pursue research that creates and kills embryonic human beings using federal funding. That last part is important. Former President George Bush’s so-called “ban on stem cell research” was no such thing. Bush permitted federal funding for research using adult stem cells (our bodies are full of them) and for embryonic stem cell research on lines of stem cells that existed prior to his executive order. That is, on stem cells from human embryos who had already been killed for their parts. He would not permit federal dollars to fund research that killed additional human embryos. Killing had to be done and was done with private or state government funding.

Bush also encouraged research to discover ways of obtaining stem cells without killing any embryos—research that has been so successful that the need for destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells has been obviated.

Nonetheless, on March 9, as Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and IRD board member and Princeton Professor Robert P. George wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Inexplicably—apart from political motivations—Mr. Obama revoked not only the Bush restrictions on embryo-destructive research funding, but also the 2007 executive order that encourages the National Institutes of Health to explore non-embryo-destructive sources of stem cells.

Obama’s executive order, they note, “will promote a whole new industry of embryo creation and destruction, including the creation of human embryos by cloning for research in which they are destroyed.” Such is the lure of OPM—“Other People’s Money.” (And do not forget that you and I are the other people.)

In the announcement of his new policy, Obama said, “Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.” Why Mr. Obama believes that my “point of view” (more accurately, my strong moral conviction) is respected by using my money to systematically violate my “point of view” was not made clear.

The notion that embryo-destructive research will result in miracle cures may be true, but not anytime soon. By contrast adult stem cells are being used now to help patients suffering from Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and dozens of other ailments. Embryonic stem cells have so far laid a goose egg.

So what is the irresistible appeal of the research? Bill Saunders, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Human Life and Bioethics at the Family Research Council, and I came up with at least three. First, this is cutting-edge research and Ph.D. scientists are attracted to cutting-edge science. With apologies to John Kenneth Galbraith, embryonic stem cell research is and will continue to be very useful as a means of employment for embryonic stem cell researchers.

Second, this is a political opportunity to demonize George Bush and religious social conservatives as anti-science Luddites who have no compassion for the sick and suffering.

Third, all research on embryos adds to our knowledge base and will, sooner or later, allow us to build human beings to order. Scientists hope to create genetically identical human fetuses for use in medical experiments—the new generation of laboratory mice.   Some would-be parents are anxious to turn having a child into the ultimate shopping experience with choices of gender, hair color, intelligence, height, and health. While the word “eugenics” has been out of favor since the Nazis, the desire to control the future of the human species is with us still.

As Robert George told the Associated Press, objection to human embryo-destructive research is not at its core religious. It is based on a moral argument rooted in humanity, equality, and justice. The strong should care for “the least of these,” not exploit them. 

Just as it is morally repugnant to subject adult human subjects to deadly medical experiments, it is morally repugnant to subject embryonic humans to deadly medical experiments no matter what good results such research might someday yield.

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