In 2001, President George Bush endorsed very limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Today, proponents of the cause say this is not, and will never be, enough to efficiently make productive medical progress in the field. Opponents say that any funding at all is immoral and an inappropriate use of tax-payer’s dollars. Layered and controversial, this issue has pitted the scientific community against religious leaders and deeply divided the American public as people grapple for some concrete boundaries in this morally hazy and liminal space.
Essentially, a stem cell—found in the human embryo—is a generic or “undifferentiated” cell that has the potential to develop into any type of cell in the body: lung cells, kidney cells, heart cells. In their research, scientists endeavor to control completely the development of these cells. If they were able to manipulate a group of stem cells into pancreas cells, for instance, we might be able to save thousands from the quick and painful death almost surely wrought by pancreatic cancer. Indeed, scientists hope, and many are convinced, that stem cells could unlock the secret to cures for legions of terrible diseases, from crippling cancers and heart disease to even degenerative brain diseases, like Lou Gerig’s and Alzheimers.
Because harvesting stem cells effectively destroys the embryo, however, the debate over embryonic stem-cell research has become embroiled in the abortion debate. Opponents argue that such harvesting is wrong because it destroys human life, and many maintain, is tantamount to “playing god”—a game which, they argue, we neither have the judgment nor the right to play. Supporters contest, however, that the embryos in question—mostly surplus from fertility clinics— were going to be destroyed anyway and there is no harm at all in taking advantage of our resources, especially if it means possibly saving thousands with newfound cures for previously debilitating and/or fatal diseases. Indeed, proponents of stem-cell research argue that the relative risk of infringing on a moral gray area is far outweighed by the possible rewards stem-cells could offer in terms of clinical breakthrough, medical miracles.
While some scientists, as a way around the abortion issue, have attempted to use adult stem-cells—found in bone marrow—for similar causes, the results are not promising; adult stem cells, it seems, are far less malleable and much harder to manipulate than those found in human embryos. Concordantly, in a recent bioethical debate at Harvard, molecular biologist Kevan Eggan acknowledged that “adult stem cell research is important and must go forward," but maintained that embryonic stem-cell research possessed higher potential for real scientific breakthroughs.
And ultimately—barring privately funded radical research—we are talking about embryos produced in fertility clinics that are being discarded as surplus anyway, or, alternatively, embryos cultured in laboratories with the express function of harvesting cells; a child is not being deprived of life, the embryos in question are slated to be destroyed no matter what they are used for. In this light, it seems clear that, as Eggan insists, “the moral obligation we have to treat diseases and relieve suffering outweighs any obligation we may have to the human embryo.”