Sunday, September 17, 2006

Stem Cell Research: The Taking of Human Life?

{Audio this essay @ 2.2MB .mp3} Today the Washington Post is reporting that “scientists for the first time have turned ordinary skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells -- without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process.”[1]

This is an important advance in stem cell technology, since many people feel that any use of embryonic stem cells destroys a human life, and since this new process would not require such destruction.

Typically one coaxes an ordinary stem cell into an embryo, and then uses the embryo as a little factory to grow more cells inside. When one finally harvests the newly manufactured stem cells, the embryo is destroyed. That’s supposed to be when a human life is destroyed.

I personally do not share the intuition that a human life is destroyed when an embryo is destroyed. At best a potential human life is destroyed, not an actual human life. This distinction is one that Enlightenment Philosopher Immanuel Kant has drawn. Still, I’m not even taken by that distinction as the best ethical stance on the matter, though I think it is probably the best pragmatic criterion for making legal distinctions. (The law can only do so much in society; personal ethics and relationships must do the rest.)

I typically count something as a human life only if there is operant brain wave activity. The primitive streak,[2] which is the forerunner structure that eventually forms into the brain and spinal cord develops around the fifth week, and brain wave signals are typically active for auditory and visual systems at week twenty-six. Naturally, therefore, I’m pretty stiff on any justification for abortion after that time; for, by my own criterion, a human life is then lost. So the idea of destroying a bunch of pre-programmed cells – cells that never even get close to building even the rudimentary structures for a fetal brain – just does not bother me.

Other people seem really bothered by the above brain-wave argument, most visibly the Roman Catholic church: “The late Pope John Paul II stated that an embryo should be treated as a human from the point of fertilization, which precludes the use of embryos for research, regardless of the source.”[3] Right-wing Evangelicals seem bothered by it too, but on my view the Roman Catholic church always has the most nuanced and rational arguments on these Bioethical matters when compared with any Evangelical group, since the latter group regularly has a simplistic view of how to read ancient literature to contemporary advantage. (Here is a typical weak case of Evangelical argumentation [4]. )


[1] “Skin Cells Converted to Stem Cells” Washington Post (Accessed 17 Sept. 2006)

[2] Image: Primitive Streak “Monitoring Stem Cell Research. Appendix A: Notes on Early Human Development” The President’s Council on Bioethics (Accessed 17 Sept. 2006)

[3] “A Healthcare Revolution: Arguments for Embryonic Stem Cell Research” Ivy Journal of Ethics (Accessed 17 Sept. 2006)

[4]What about stem cell research on embryonic tissue?” (Accessed 17 Sept. 2006)



At 12:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts re: brain waves.

Though, I have to ask. What would you argue in a situation where someone has hit brain-death, but (theoretically? I don't know if this currently happens as specifically as I'm talking) could be revived, brainwaves and all?

One thing to keep in mind - until they're revived, said person is.. well. A husk, aren't they? And at that specific moment, they are therefore not alive. Granted, they have the potential to be alive.

Does having being a full-fledged human recently make their potential more 'real'?


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