The stem cell debate
When the Church developed the modern reasoning behind its teaching that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception, cloning was the stuff of science fiction fantasy. Even now, the common understanding of clones evokes notions of the potential of reproduced humans among us.
While reproductive cloning has been outlawed virtually everywhere, human clones are still being produced for research. It is this that is at issue in the debate around stem cell research.
Stem cell therapy, still a nascent science, is the biggest medical breakthrough in history, with the potential of producing cures for a wide range of diseases and conditions. The controversy centres on the origin of stem cells: they can be obtained from embryos; or from bone marrow or brain tissue (adult stem cells) and tissue superfluous to normal foetal development.
Proponents of research into embryonic stem cells say that these are potentially more versatile than adult stem cells, and therefore hold greater promise in finding cures to ailments such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and diabetes.
The other side, which includes the Catholic Church and the pro-life movement, point out that research into adult stem cells has already produced actual results especially in the field of heart disease whereas embryonic stem cell research has so far produced nothing but promise and hope.
The crucial distinction, however, is one of ethics. Simply put, embryonic stem cell research destroys human life. Adult stem cell research does not.
Dr Jennifer Lahl, executive director of the Centre of Bioethics and Culture in Oakland, California, describes the life that is being destroyed for research in stark terms: “Once sperm and egg are united, and the DNA double helixes are ravelled and unravelled, you have a human. If you put that embryo into a woman, you’re going to have a baby in nine month’s time.”
If we believe that the deliberate killing of human life is wrong, we must believe that creating and killing an embryo for purposes of research is wrong.
It isn’t only the religious pro-life lobby that takes this view. The moral approach transcends religious principles. Even among those who back legal abortion there are many who have scruples about creating life only to destroy it again.
Indeed, a survey of 217 in vitro fertilisation clinics (which create and freeze embryos for reproductive purposes) in the United States found that many hold prayer services when frozen embryos are destroyed.
South African law allows for research on foetuses of up to 14 days old. South Africa is the only African country to do so, and the only one with the facilities to enter such research. The debate must be extended to this country, too.
Addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last year, Pope John Paul who suffers from a disease that proponents of therapeutic cloning hope to cure said: “Any treatment which claims to save human lives, yet is based upon the destruction of human life in its embryonic state, is logically and morally contradictory, as is any production of human embryos for the direct or indirect purpose of experimentation or eventual destruction.”
Instead of making life for the express purpose of killing it again, the pope encouraged stem-cell research on adult human tissue or tissue superfluous to normal foetal development.
Regardless of how great the promise in harvesting the stem cells of embryos, a utilitarian approach without ethics diminishes all of humanity.