Field of Science

Ban lifted on stem cell research

There are so many things wrong with these rather smug arguments about the moral evil of stem cell research that you hardly know where to begin. But let’s just take one issue. The ban on stem cell research was based upon religious ideology that the Bush administration agreed with. Their position was simple: from the moment of conception a zygote is fully human and deserving of protection.

The Catholic Church latched onto conception when it was first clearly understood what was taking place because it seemed to provide a definitive point to say here’s when human life begins, here’s when you acquire a soul. Historically and religiously the point at which life begins has changed. Actually this isn’t about life per se, but about when you are an individual person. Of course, few argued with the idea that you become a person at birth. Although in earlier times when infant mortality was high personhood was acquired post-birth, at christening, which is now done at birth officially.

While a zygote may be genetically an individual, it is not a person. A zygote contains a set of instructions that can lead to a person after a considerable input of materials and labor (sort of a pun). The difference is simple. A fried whole chicken dinner is not the same as a fried egg. A set of blueprints is not a house. If you bought one you would be indignant about receiving the other. Not to mention the fact that in one out of every 800 or so human conceptions something interesting can happen up until the 12th day of development. The zygote or embryo can split and produce identical twins. Do they share a soul? They both have the same chromosomes which is where the soul must reside as there is nothing else in a zygote. Are twins hemi-souls, or half soulless, something less than fully human? Ridiculous. This shows the folly of insisting that personhood extends back to conception because twins became individuals after conception. After all you cannot murder a twin and then declare the act inconsequential because that genetic individual still exists.

And many people now think that personhood is acquired when human specific brain activity begins around the end of the 2nd trimester. Interestingly enough most people agree that when such brain activity ceases a body is brain dead and the person is gone even if the body remains alive. But many fewer agree to apply the same standard for the beginning of life. But it is a scientifically defensible position.

Now the point here is not to say that one perspective or the other is correct, but moral people of good conscience can disagree about this issue. Science does not provide a definitive answer, although changes in medical practice and biological knowledge can shift these concepts unless your position is dogmatic. So in a nation that has a diversity of religious traditions, and a diversity of ideas about personhood even within some of these religions, by what right does one religious tradition, one religious belief, think it can force its ideas upon everyone using the weight of government? The ban on stem cell research forced everyone to accept the validity of one particular religious perspective. But that is the way it is today. For some people religious freedom means having it their way because they have no regard for anyone else’s freedom. Simple label other ideas immoral and you can trample their liberties with a clear conscience. Sorry, but people who place their religion over everyone’s liberties strikes me as un-American. You may not be the Taliban, but it is only a matter of degree.

To end on a lighter note, the Phactor was once asked in a telephone survey about my position on using stem cells for research. I said, no problem. Those parenchyma cells are totipotential; they can dedifferentiate and their development altered to create a whole new plant.


Sarah Willie said...

But opponents of research on the moral is not a favor. The reason is that embryonic stem cells, or derived from early embryos, of life as in death! Pro-life and religious groups say that the embryo is human life and that embryonic stem cells are removed, it is the killing of human life. Religious groups also said that many embryos and fetuses because of the ongoing investigation is a mistake.

Dr A said...

>>Pro-life and religious groups say that the embryo is human life

So? May not well-meaning and moral people disagree? And if so, do you have the right to force your religious views upon someone else?