Section 13B... Social Issues/
Stem Cell Research

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Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Gregory Koukl

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You have to have a human being before you can get human stem cells.

    I want to talk to you about an idea, a concept - the underlying moral principles that drive ideas. My deep concern about our nation is that there is radical confusion, not just in the population in general, but in the church in particular, about how to do moral thinking. One of the most immediate examples of such a thing is the area of embryonic stem cell research and cloning. You know that Congress is debating right now whether to allow human cloning or not, and whether to allow the cloning of embryonic stem cells for research. Actually those are both the exact same issue.

    There has been an attempt to obfuscate (confuse) the issue morally, an attempt to draw a distinction between a blastula (the earliest stages of human development) and the later stages, as if in the first case you donít have human beings and in the second you do. People will say that is not a human being, that is just an embryo or that is just a blastula. You know, when you think about it, friends, there are many, many kinds of embryos. Embryo is not a thing ó it is a stage. It is like saying a ten-day-old, or an adolescent, or a youngster. It does not tell you anything about the thing except for its level of development. It could be a young dog, or it could be a young parakeet, or it could be a young human being. It could be a fish embryo, it could be a dog embryo, it could be a human embryo. You see, embryo, or blastula, or blastocyst are just terms to describe this earliest stages of development where stem cells are present; these are just words that identify a stage of the development of a thing. It does not give you any information as to what that thing is that is developing.

    To say that an embryo goes from an embryo after a certain level of development into a human being is to create a kind of category error, it is mixing terms. It is kind of like saying this thing went from a ten-day-old to a young rabbit. A ten-day-old what? Well, a ten-day-old baby rabbit into a young rabbit. These are terms that represent two different categories of things. To be clear about these things, we have to acknowledge that distinction. So when we say embryo, we are talking about a stage of development, we are not talking about the thing. (Also See The Face of Abortion}

    The question is what kind of embryo is it? And in this case the embryos are human embryos, the blastula are human blastula. You have to have a human being before you can get human stem cells. So, this discussion about the legitimacy of cloning for the stem cells versus cloning to create a human being, is a rationally confused distinction. There is no difference. You cannot get human embryonic stem cells but from a human embryo. So, you must create a human being first in its embryo stage, which then is either allowed to grow into subsequent stages, fetus, newborn, adolescent, etc., or is destroyed before it can begin to develop into other stages and is then cut up an used for body parts. But it still is what it is when it is destroyed ó a human being in a blastula stage.

    The problem with this issue has to do with a challenge in trying to weigh means and ends. I have an article from the LA Times from March 6, 2002. Midway through the first section under "The Nation" is a compelling photograph of actor Christopher Reeve appearing on Capitol Hill with Senator Edward Kennedy and California Senator Diane Feinstein because he spoke before the senate in favor of what is called "therapeutic cloning" - cloning for disease research. That is, cloning to produce this young embryo that is then divided up and not allowed to grow to further stages. My point here is that there is no significant (pardon me for the use of this word, but it is the right word to use here) ontological difference (Iíll explain in a moment); there is no ontological difference between therapeutic cloning and cloning to create a human being.

    Ontology has to do with the nature of existence or the being itself. The question "What is that thing?" is an ontological question. What is the essence of its existence? The question with embryonic stem cell research is whether the distinction between therapeutic cloning and cloning to create a human being is meaningful. As I mentioned earlier, therapeutic cloning must first create a human being before it has human stem cells to be used for that purpose.

    Christopher Reeve's story is dramatic, of course. Christopher Reeve, the actor, the handsome Adonis, human perfection prior to his accident. Superman. A tremendous actor, actually. Good looking, healthy, and then he, after a horse accident that broke his neck, became a quadriplegic. There is some question as to whether therapeutic cloning might be able to produce a therapy that will help regenerate broken spines, or bad spinal columns, and the like, so that Christopher Reeve might be able to be healed. Now, I donít know that he is holding out for himself, but he is certainly thinking about others like him.

    This is a powerful picture, and it goes along with the point that we have made many times in the past. If you want to have a moral impact on an issue, use pictures for their moral impact. Now, the important thing, of course, is you are not just using pictures for impact, but you are using pictures to go along with a good argument. This is the way we argue against abortion. You see the impact here. He has shown us himself to argue his case. Here is this dramatic moment where Christopher Reeve shows up, and everybody knows the way he was, they see the way he is. They see his indomitable spirit. They see him arguing for the use of cloning for the purpose of producing medicines that will help people in his circumstance. It has a powerful emotional impact.

    I will tell you what is troubling me about this. Those of us who opposed embryonic stem cell research do not realize the good that can come from this kind of experimentation. We have to have a quadriplegic paraded before us to soften our stony hearts so that we would realize what is really at stake here. Open your eyes. In fact, the article opens up with this statement: "His 13-year-old daughter at his side, Hollywood director Jerry Zucker lamented the fact that Congress might pass a law Ďstopping us from trying to save my daughterís life.í" Apparently, his daughter has an affliction that might be healed by embryonic stem cell research. So he sees these actions as merely hard-hearted actions that are just meant to hurt people. The same thing with Christopher Reeve. Donít you guys get it? Wake up! Are you so callus that you donít see the good that can be done from therapeutic cloning?

    My answer is, we get it! Thatís not the issue. Here is our lesson for today. The whole question that we are faced with in this is whether the ends justify the means. Thatís it. It is a question of means-and-ends relationship. And the whole question of ultimate ends, the benefits, all of the good things that might come out of embryonic stem cell research justify whatever means is necessary.

    By the way, I am just granting that for the sake of argument because it is not clear that all these good things will come out of embryonic stem cell research. And it is also not clear if stem cell research can produce good results that there are not other less morally questionable means of getting those same results. Granting all of that, letís just say this is the only way to do it and this will cure all these diseases. That does not settle the question because the whole question of ultimate ends is completely irrelevant without a clear answer to the question of means. As you know, a noble end, in this case healing or preventing debilitating disease, is only moral given the means that we use to get there. What do we have to do to get to this thing? {Also See The Big Stem-Cell Breakthrough That you're not hearing about }

    There are two extremes on this, and one extreme is from our side. And people say things that turn out to be not helpful. On the one hand, we have to avoid statements like, The ends never justify the means. Think about that statement for just a moment. You donít believe that. The ends never justify the means? Well, thatís not what we mean. As stated, this is not a helpful moral guideline because there is always a relationship between means and ends. Certain means are justified by some ends but not by others. And whether a certain means is justified or not, whether the method you use to get what you want is right or not, depends entirely on what it is you are trying to get. So you canít say the ends never justify the means. You have to ask whether the ends in this circumstance do justify the means in this circumstance. There is a relationship there.

    For example, killing may not be a justifiable means to get a seat on the bus. Killing - thatís the means. Well, obviously, those ends do not justify the means. But what if the same means here ó killing - was to accomplish a different end, that is, maybe to save someone elseís life. You have a child under attack and you use lethal force to stop this lethal attack on a childís life. There you have the same means, killing, but you have a different end. In the first case it was getting a seat on the bus, but in the second the means does justify the end. So whether a certain means is justifiable or not depends entirely on what it is you are trying to accomplish. And when the circumstances change then the moral equation changes with it. Now, some people are uncomfortable when I say it that way. They say, that is relativism. That is situational ethics. This is not situational ethics and this is not relativism if one clearly understands what those terms mean.

    Situational Ethics is a proper noun. It is a specific kind of ethical system developed by a man named Joseph Fletcher. And Joseph Fletcher is not a relativist; he was an absolutist. The absolute rule he believed was that you should always do the loving thing. The circumstance determine what is loving in any given situation. I am not advocating that. I am advocating that you must look at the situation itself before you can know what proper and appropriate objective or absolute moral principle applies. All moral decision making is situational in that sense. Is killing right? Well, it depends. Not to get a seat in the bus, but killing arguably is right in self-defense. Do you see the relationship there?.

    Relativism is when the moral claim is relative, not to the circumstances themselves, but is relative to the subject. It's also called subjectivism. In the same circumstances, different subjects have different moral rules. If you and I are in the exact same situation, I could say that one course of action is right for me, but an opposite course of action could be right for you. The only thing that is changed is you and I. That is relativism. See Section on Relativism

    All truth claims of any kind are always relative to the circumstances - you have to know which rule to apply in any given circumstance. We have to be careful to be aware that when we are making moral judgments with regards to means and ends, it is not enough to simply dismiss alternatives with the statement, The ends never justify the means. Oftentimes, the ends do justify the means. You have to look more closely. But, on the other hand, we cannot simply look at noble goals and act as if that is all that matters.

    We cannot just trot out people in wheelchairs before the Senate in place of a moral argument. Of course, it is a noble end; no one is taking exception with that. This question is what do we have to do to get the ends that you have in mind? It isnít that people like us just want sick people to stay sick. We are callous and hard and need to see more handicapped people wheeled around in wheelchairs and more Alzheimerís patients to finally melt our cold hearts. No, that is not what is going on. The key here to the means and ends discussion is in weighing the means and the ends to see if there is proportionality.

    We just have to ask the question whether the ends justify the means in this case. As I stated, there always is a relationship between the means and ends. We have to look at each individual case. We cannot just blanket it and say the ends never justify the means because sometimes they do. But do they, in this particular case?

    In the case of embryonic stem cell research, arguably, a human being is being sacrificed for her body parts so that someone else can survive or get healthy. Our view is about what is the price we have to pay to reach that end. It may be the case that human beings are sacrificed for other peopleís benefit. Even with those noble ends, it should be clear to see that it is just simply wrong to take the life of one innocent human being to improve the health of another, or even to save that personís life. Now, sometimes we may choose to sacrifice our own lives to save the life of someone else. That is called heroism, but heroism is not required morally and we ought not be forced to jeopardize our lives on behalf of others. Certainly when we do that, if we choose to, that is morally commendable. But in this case, we are not talking about that. We are talking about children, human beings, who do not have the capability of giving such consent, but are being sacrificed on behalf of others. Simply put, we do not carve up infants for their body parts to save the lives of other children. Or, in the Apostle Paulís words, we donít do evil that good may come.

    Back to the main point. The good ends are desired by everyone. We donít need Christopher Reeve to convince us of that. But we must face this question: What is it that you are asking us to do to accomplish this noble end? And it brings us back once again to the pivotal issue, what is the unborn? A human being. Well, that is what needs to be discussed, not the good that can come from stem cell research. What is the embryo? The stem cells? The blastula? The blastocyst? Because as I mentioned, human embryos donít become human beings; they already are human at a particular stage of development. That is the issue. We aren't against embryonic stem cell research per se; we are against killing human embryos to use their stem cells. That is the issue we have to focus on.

    Parading handicapped people before us misses the point. Weíre just as concerned about these handicapped people as others. In fact, we would also campaign that you cannot take the life of these handicapped people because they are handicapped. You cannot remove the feeding tube. In Christopher Reeveís own book that he wrote, Still Me, he said that he realized that even though he'd lost the use of his body that he was still the same person. And if he is intrinsically valuable before the accident, he is intrinsically valuable after the accident. We acknowledge that intrinsic value. He is not instrumentally valuable because he is formerly Superman. He is valuable because he is a human being made in the image of God. And if that is the case, then his value is the same as all other human beings made in the image of God, regardless of their size, their level of development, their environment, or their degree of dependency. As it turns out, the blastula, the embryo, is a human being that is just smaller, more dependent, in a different location, and less developed than a Christopher Reeve. It's valuable because of what it is, not how it can be used.

    Here is a commentary "First Test in the Biotech Age ó Human Cloning", Wednesday, March 6, L.A. Times. Do we have the will and the wisdom to say no? ask William Crystal and Jeremy Rifkin, with regards to human cloning." I am going to read a bit of what they have written here because I think it really captures some moral consistency and moral clarity. First they argue for a moral rule and then specify its application, rather than simply looking at the application and saying, that is a great application so the moral rule does not matter. Itís another way of putting the means and ends discussion, and the relationship of the two. They write,

      "With regards to this brave new world prospect here, will we be content to frame the discussion in the old terms of religion versus science, or pro-life versus pro-choice? Or are we willing to see that the debate is over two distinct views of human life and the good society?" I think they have nailed it.

      "On the one side are the utilitarians. These are the ones who basically see cloning life in terms of markets and patents and progress. On the other side are those who believe in the intrinsic value of human life. They mention for various reasons, but whatever their rationale, religious or otherwise, this is what they believe. They all share a respect for the human and the natural and oppose efforts to reduce human life in its various parts and stages to the status of mere research tools and manufactured products. The utilitarians argue that the potential medical advances of harvesting stem cells from cloned human embryos for medical research justifies going ahead. However, those of us to hold to the intrinsic value of life believe that creating embryonic clones for research and eventually for the creation of spare body parts if unethical. Even though, we strongly support continued research on adult stem cells which has proved promising in recent clinical trials."

    They look at the distinction being made between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning and are say that in both cases we are confronted with the same moral problem. We cannot treat them differently. They point out that these bills before the Congress right now would, in effect, authorize the creation of human clones and then mandate their destruction. Then they take the roof off. They show the natural consequence of this way of thinking.

      "If using a 12-day-old cloned embryo for producing cells and tissues is morally acceptable, what about harvesting more developed cells from say, an eight-week-old embryo, or harvesting organs from a five-month-old cloned fetus if it were found to be a more useful medical therapy."

    They are showing that when you take this to its logical conclusion, it produces morally absurd results. They are taking the roof off.

      "Humans have always thought of the birth of their children as a gift bestowed by God or beneficent nature. In its place, the new cloned progeny would become the ultimate shopping experience designed in advanced, produced to specifications, and purchased in the biological marketplace. A child would no longer be a unique creature, but rather an engineered reproduction. Human cloning opens the door to a commercial eugenic civilization where life science companies already have patented both human embryos and stem cells."

    How do you patent a human embryo? They go on, "Giving them ownership and control of the new form of reproductive commerce with frightening implications for the future of society."

    Friends, my point in cloning has always been that the greatest harm is not the cloning per se. Iím not sure. Iím troubled by cloning per se. Iím troubled by how one would view the bona fide human beings that would be the result of the human cloning process. A cloned human being would be a real human being with a soul. Clones would have souls. Dolly the sheep has a soul. CiCi the kitten has a soul. It is theologically sound. It is philosophically sound. Humans have a different kind of soul than animals have, but clones would have souls. A human body without a soul is called a corpse, okay? But the problem is, since the body, the human being in this case was accomplished through this highly scientific process, the question of ownership comes up. Do these cloned human beings belong to families and ought be treated like human beings as members of the families. Or are they merely the products of the laboratory and the property, therefore, of the scientist? That is the problem.

      They close, "As the Senate prepares to debate, we should not be fooled about the stakes. This is the first major test of the biotech age, a moment of decision for a civilization that may have gone too far already in their commercialization and the destruction of the human and ecological worlds. Do we have the wisdom and the political and the moral will to say stop?"

    Well written, a piece with moral clarity on this issue.

    ©2002 Gregory Koukl


    Contemporary Social Issues