• U.S.

Mounting the Slippery Slope

4 minute read
Charles Krauthammer

I favor federal funding of stem-cell research, but now I am scared to death–of my allies. The case they (and I) have made is simple: stem cells, possessing in theory the capacity to replace almost any damaged or defective tissue in the body, have a great potential for good. Although deriving stem cells may require destroying a five-day-old human embryo, this “blastocyst” is usually taken from fertility clinics, where it is going to be discarded anyway. It’s not as if–or so we have been saying–we are wantonly creating human embryos only to destroy them for research.

Not so. It turns out the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Va., has been doing exactly that: taking volunteers’ sperm and eggs to create a human embryo for the sole purpose of dismembering it for its mother lode of stem cells.

Two things are disturbing here. First, while this research did not become widely known until July 11, it had been reported to fellow scientists back in October. Yet for nine months, stem-cell advocates have been repeating the “only discarded embryos” mantra. What did they know, and when did they know it? Second, and equally disturbing, is the stem-cell supporters’ response to the Norfolk research. John Gearhart, one of the original stem-cell pioneers, told the New York Times that he was “perplexed” by this development because “we don’t think it’s necessary.”

Unnecessary? Had we not all agreed that it is unethical, a violation of the elementary notion that we don’t make of the human embryo a thing–to be made, unmade and used as a mere instrument for others? Dr. Michael Soules of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine was even more appalling. He saw nothing wrong with the procedure, except the “timing.” Meaning, I suppose, that it would have been better if this news had remained hidden until President Bush had decided whether to fund stem-cell research, believing, falsely, that only discarded embryos were being used.

The other reassurance my side had been giving is that stem-cell research is not about cloning. A day after the news from Norfolk we learned that a laboratory in Worcester, Mass. (the very same lab that three years ago produced a hybrid human-cow embryo) is trying to grow cloned human embryos to produce stem cells–but could be used to produce a full or (even more ghastly) partial human clone. What other monstrosities are going on that we don’t know about?

Yes, some people oppose stem-cell research because they believe human life begins at conception. But you don’t have to believe that to be apprehensive that stem-cell research may legitimize the mechanization of life, the making of the human fetus into the ultimate guinea pig. People are horrified when a virgin hill is strip-mined for coal; how can they be unmoved when a human embryo is created solely to be strip-mined for its parts?

What next? Today a blastocyst is created for harvesting. Tomorrow, researchers may find that a five-month-old fetus with a discernible human appearance, suspended in an artificial placenta, may be the source of even more promising body parts. At what point do we draw the line?

Let’s draw it right where it is and hold it. It is a reasonable moral calculus to use and thus derive some good from an already doomed, fertility clinic blastocyst. Moreover, federal funding would for the first time permit the procedure to be regulated.

But if we do decide to give society’s imprimatur to stem-cell research, it must be with open eyes and a troubled conscience. These new disclosures of human cloning and the creation of embryos for their deliberate destruction are well-timed reminders of how easily moral barriers can be violated. Federal regulation must therefore be strict and unbending.

–No human cloning. At any stage. For any purpose, even research. Congress should criminalize it.

–No embryos created solely to be harvested.

–Stem-cell production permitted only from otherwise discarded fertility-clinic embryos or from fetal cadavers.

–A radical increase in federal support for research into adult stem cells, which present fewer moral problems and which might prove to be more genetically stable and controllable than fetal-derived stem cells.

Stem-cell research will one day be a boon to humanity. We owe it to posterity to pursue it. But we also owe posterity a moral universe not trampled and corrupted by arrogant, brilliant science. It is precisely because of the glittering promise of stem-cell research that we need great care, great vigilance and great restraint as we mount the slippery slope.

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