Life As A Commodity
Last night, George W. Bush, the President of the United States, announced a compromise policy on Federal support for stem cell research. His announcement made few people happy because it cut a path straight down the middle of the issue and carefully avoided making any significant ethical decisions about it.
At the ethical heart of the matter is a question about using a human fetus for scientific (read "medical") research. For significant research to happen, the fetus must be "alive." After the research has begun (meaning removal of stem cells), the fetus is "dead." Thus, while there has been scientific research on human beings as long as anyone can remember, this research arguably leads directly to the death of the human involved. In many respects, the ethical issues are the same as those discussed for abortion; though, in this case, the living fetus involved may be created by the scientist himself/herself by fertilizing reserved human eggs with human sperm. However the fetus has been created, the ethical issue centers upon the question of whether a human fetus is a human being and is, thus, covered by the principle of not taking human life.
The creation of a human fetus from reserved eggs and sperm is commonplace, today, but most of these are implanted in a woman's uterus where "nature takes its course" and single- or multiple-pregnancy may occur. Thus far, no one has complained about the deaths of fetuses that fail to survive this procedure or, for that matter, the sad fate that awaits children who are born to women in bizarre multiple pregnancies as a consequence of these techniques. Evidently, these lives were lost "unintentionally."
Others will argue that the whole issue is perched on a "slippery slope" of both scientific and ethical reasoning in which far more dramatic events will inevitably unfold. There are at least two obvious directions of further scientific research. One of these is the process of raising a living fetus outside of a human host ("test tube babies"). The other is raising a healthy cloned human fetus (with swopped DNA) by either path (implantation or test tube). The scientific goal is to demonstrate an ability to create a viable (that is, self sustaining) human being by entirely artificial means, with the sole exception that human eggs and sperm have to be used. The cloning experiment merely adds to this the "thrill" of swopping DNA in and out of the natural egg and sperm stock.
In many respects, biological science is perched, today, at its own entry into a kind of "Manhattan Project" on human life. Once nuclear physicists conceived of the enormous energy that could be generated by the destruction of a tiny amount of mass, the inevitable need was to blow something up big time. Hiroshima and Nagasaki paid for that need, physics forever lost its innocence. Biologists, too, will have to suffer through their own blood guilt.
In order to really achieve these exciting scientific goals,...