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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

I apologize that I haven't posted anything in almost a week. For some unknown technological mystery, our Internet service was down for several days. I want to continue my thoughts on twins (plus respond to Mike's post), but for now I'll post a column published by the Tallahassee Democrat, on October 1st.
Stem-cell research opponents are silent on fertilization

The Tallahassee Democrat's editorial on Florida's new stem-cell initiative [Sept. 23] was welcomed by supporters of embryonic stem-cell research. However, one point needs clarification. The majority of those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research on ethical grounds do not believe the cells hold "the potential for human life." They believe the cells are human life.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has said, "An embryo is a person." President Bush refers to embryos as "real human lives."

I have a problem with this. If I believed that embryos were "real human lives," I'd be mighty uncomfortable knowing that, in the United States alone, about 400,000 little "babies" are frozen solid, side-effects of the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process.

I'd be even more uncomfortable knowing that almost 9,000 wait to be discarded or destroyed, not to mention the inadvertent casualties. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine estimates that "about 65 percent of these embryos will survive the freeze-thaw process." Others put that number closer to 50 percent.

Where is the outcry over the creation of these disposable "human lives"?

The ethical position seems to be: It's OK for laboratories to create excess "human lives." It's also OK for these extras to be destroyed. But it's a sin to use them for research with the potential to help the 128 million living Americans now suffering from diseases targeted by that research?

Florida's initiative states that researchers will have access only to those embryos that "before or after formation, have been donated to medicine under donor instructions forbidding intrauterine embryo transfer." If not implanted or used for research, these embryos would presumably be discarded.

How can I state this more clearly? They would be discarded.

Opponents of this research, including the president and our governor, are saving nothing. As one father of an adopted embryo put it, "our 'culture of life' perversely demands that they be thrown into the garbage. That's how precious they are ... we must destroy life, according to the administration, to avoid preserving life."

Until opponents of stem-cell research address the total picture - IVF destroys more embryos than stem-cell research - their opposition rings hollow. If they won't act to outlaw IVF, how can they continue to oppose using IVF's discards for life-saving research? I still seek the moral sense of that position.

Some opponents of stem-cell research persist in using terms like "murder," "dismemberment" and "slaughter," apparently ignoring what happens to the leftover embryos no one seems to want. (And before you shout Snowflake babies, born through embryonic adoption, the numbers don't work. Fewer than 100 to date.)

That argument aside, what do researchers actually "murder?" Stem cells are taken from very early-stage embryos, usually 4 to 5 days old, that have been fertilized in vitro, in a petri dish. Called blastocysts, these microscopic balls of cells are roughly the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

At this point in their development, the cells in the blastocyst have no characteristics of a specific type. They are not yet purposeful as a heart cell, skin cell, kidney cell, etc. They are non-specialized cells with the potential to differentiate. But before differentiation, which occurs at about day 10, many things can happen.

The fertilized egg might fail to attach to the uterine wall, which happens more often than not, causing it to pass. The fertilized egg might split and become identical twins. It might merge with another fertilized egg to create the unusual scenario of two fertilized eggs developing into a single embryo, resulting in a chimera. Or, the fertilized egg could develop into a single human being.

Until differentiation, it has no clear "fate" or "destiny." Yet this is what opponents to embryonic stem-cell research prioritize over living, breathing human beings desperately waiting for cures.

Morality is never black and white, although many live their lives trying to prove it is. Shades of gray have a tendency to creep in at inopportune moments, forcing us to question long-held beliefs, to wonder if we were right (or wrong) all along.

It's like the question posed so often in this debate: If the clinic caught fire, would you save your 2-year-old or that Petri dish of newly fertilized eggs? Taking the moral high ground is easy when you have nothing to lose. It's harder to stay there once the sky turns gray.

Brain Pills
Roe v. Wade
Stem Cells
Stem Cell Fight!
Bearing Right
Moral Monkey?
Dave's site
Stem Stall
Bush the hypocrite

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