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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.


A few days ago, Reuters summarized two papers published in the current issue of Nature on using mouse and rat embryonic stem cells in lieu of those from humans, which "should speed up research into regenerative medicine and help in the hunt for cures to a range of diseases." That the two papers -- one from a team at Oxford, the other from a Cambridge group -- were developed concurrently and independently "is a sign of momentum picking up in stem cell research," says the Reuters piece:
Laboratory mice have long been a favourite model for human disease but researchers have been frustrated by the fact that human and mouse stem cells behave very differently.

Now scientists think they may have cracked the problem.
Here on this blog we tend to focus (rightly or wrongly) on the stem-cell debate as a case of common sense at odds with deep-seated religious moral and/or religious beliefs. But it's interesting to think about how the use of non-human embryonic sources both (a) seems to sidestep the debate altogether, and (b) doesn't really sidestep anything after all -- just shoves the real issue out of sight, by removing it from the scrutiny of partisans (on both sides) otherwise focused on the word "human." The issue, not to put too fine a point on it, is that human life is a subset, a special case, of animal life. Hence the question: If we can comfortably come to a consensus about the use of non-human embryonic stem cells for the betterment of human life, can't we come to a consensus about the use of human embryonic stem cells for that purpose? Particularly when the cells in question are earmarked for no other purpose other than disposal?

Note that I'm not arguing here for what the consensus should be. (It would hardly be a consensus if I just told everybody what to believe, hmm?) Given a Sophie's Choice-type dilemma requiring that I save the life of a human or the life of a mouse, but not both, I'd choose the human just as I suppose most of you would. It would be fair to say that I hold human life to be sacred, just as most of you do.

That very notion of the sacredness of human life, perhaps, is where the potential for consensus is greatest. If a human embryonic stem cell is destined for the waste can anyway, why not use it instead to affirm the sacredness of human life as it is or will be lived by actual living, breathing erstwhile embryos who at some time come to term?

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