We learn the things that make life better in unexpected ways more often than not. A tastier dinner casserole, a stronger glue, new knowledge in science: they regularly emerge from happy accidents and experiment rather than planned development.
We have an example from research in human cells. A way has now been found to generate from ordinary skin cells the “pluripotent” power of embryonic stem cells — to make them able to repair and regenerate any organ in the body.
Something like a holy grail of medical knowledge seems to be in our hands.
It is most unlikely, though, that we would have it this soon without a certain pressure that’s been felt in the scientific community for nearly eight years.
Stem cells come from the human embryo in its earliest stages, only days old, when each cell has the full potential to be anything of the body. Embryos can be made in a laboratory. If we ignore the fact that a human egg fertilized by a human sperm leading to a human embryo is a new human being, that embryo can be sacrificed for its stem cells, much like a child sacrificed for his or her heart.
But if we take seriously the humanity of the embryo, we can’t use it like a mere bag of cells. We have to look elsewhere, we have to be more creative, we have to work a little harder to find an alternative way of gaining the knowledge and therapeutic values we want. This happened in stem cell research because in 2001 President George W. Bush decided to limit the way federal money could be used for that purpose. With restrictions on federal funds, the race to exploit the great potential of stem cell therapy was forced into a variety of different paths, with happy results.
Now we know that the stem cell potential can be generated from skin cells, and possibly from other sources as research goes on. Embryonic stem cells aren’t needed, right? Wrong, say many scientists and businesses associated with this research. We still need the pure stem cells to continue learning how they work. Perhaps, but too much self-interest is embedded in this attitude to let it have the day unchallenged.
Last week, President Barack Obama signed an executive order lifting the Bush ban on federal funding for research in embryonic cell lines. He had said he would, so this was no surprise. It was disappointing, though, because Obama claims to be sensitive to religious concerns in public policy. In this he let such concern be outweighed by political pressure.
It is primarily — perhaps only — religious communities, with the Catholic Church prominent, that stand for the humanity of the embryo. We do this because the human in any condition at any stage is the image and carrier of divine life on earth. It is the ultimate in value. It is not a utility for anything else; everything else is of utility for it.
We would make a similar argument against the use of torture. It is interesting that President Obama hears the argument in the case of torture. In January he signed an order that reversed the Bush administration permissions for physically extreme interrogation methods thought necessary against suspected terrorists. Obama stated, “We are willing to observe core standards of conduct not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard.”
If the president can see that a little bit of torture violates our “standards” and corrupts our character, he should see that a sneak attack on human life at the vulnerable embryonic stage likewise corrupts us. This is even more the case when there is no compelling “necessity.”
The contrast between Obama’s treatment of torture and the stem cell issue was pointed out by William Saletan in the online magazine Slate. Neither that author nor magazine would be considered religious, yet our religious objection to violations of human life and dignity have an echo there. As Saletan said to supporters of Obama’s action, “You won. Now for your next challenge: Don’t lose your soul.”
That is exactly the challenge whenever we face these difficult moral questions. We may take shortcuts, we may take easy routes. We may “win” something momentarily. But it always costs us a piece of our soul.