…the debate of life…

I had to write an essay on the issue of embryonic stem cell research for an ethics class I’m taking. I had only heard the sound-bite pros and cons prior to doing the research for this paper and so I had, unfortunately, adopted the opinion of many of those around me instead of thinking for myself. My opinion, not surprisingly, changed as I pondered and thought through the implications of both sides. 

This is not an extremely long essay, but I write a smidge differently when I am being graded (for starters I don’t use the word “smidge”). I am curious to hear where you line up on embryonic stem cell research and why.

GK Chesterton once said that before you tear down a fence you should probably make sure you know why it was put up in the first place. This kind of thinking is valuable in readdressing ethical issues that tend to take on new skins with sociological change and technological advancement. However, what I see in the discussion of embryonic stem cell research is perhaps just that, a unique situation. The questions of the sanctity of life, the right to life, and the definition of life have been debated and discussed for much longer than this issue has been around, but with the advent of stem cell research in general, and embryonic stem cell research in particular, there has been a legitimately new wrinkle added to these moral exchanges.

At first examination it would seem that the ethical framework for this discussion would be straightforward. In those who believe that the research and testing are beneficial, we see the teleological viewpoint that looks at the virtually endless possibilities that could be harvested. The chance that this practice is on moral thin ice is overshadowed then by the monumental potential. On the other hand, deontological arguments are easily made that life is life no matter what, and there is no justification in “taking life to save life” as the old mantra goes. But I do not see the lines this issue creates formulating nearly as crisp and stark as those two sides may suggest.

stem cell embryo

From the perspective of the ethicist, the science and vast potential is an issue but a secondary one. While I am probably not alone in that assessment I am also likely opposed, even by those that would consider themselves to be of a pro-life platform.  Roger Crook quotes Elliot N. Dorff to point out that there is no interpersonal human relationship required for a doctor to join sperm and egg (Crook, 164). The fact that donors never have to have met to create a viable embryo, and therefore the DNA code of a unique life, is exactly the kind of technological advancement that widens the philosophical spectrum and subsequently brings a new moral gray area to the discussion as it stands. This was a discussion that would have been difficult to imagine 50 years ago, much less 1900 years ago when the New Testament, the standard for America’s moral compass (in proclamation if not always in practice) was written.

The question, not surprisingly, is not one of result, but it is not one of intent either (was the embryo created with the intention of becoming a child). The central argument, it seems, is wrapped up in the veneer of vocabulary, the core of which is the verbal representation of the very essence of human existence. Many in this debate seem to be using two words interchangeably, “conception” and “fertilization”. While it almost seems like hugging a particular tree in an effort to map the entire forest, I believe that this lexical distinction is, itself, the ethical forest. In Roger Crook’s work, “An Introduction to Christian Ethics”, he uses the terms synonymously (pp 162-165), but in the documentary film “Stem Cells and Snowflake Kids” Dr. Gabriella Cezar seems to imply that fertilization is not necessarily the same thing as conception, “A fertilized, frozen egg, as is, cannot turn into a human life in the absence of being transferred into a woman.”  This distinction cannot simply be decided by a trip to the dictionary. Cultures have a tendency to shape the practical applications of similar words in order to suit their agendas. While this is just a part of the natural evolution of language, it is also a signpost for areas of ethical divergence in that culture, and thus, in my opinion, can help us find an advantageous place to “drill down”.

The question of life’s moment of beginning is much easier in a debate like abortion. Within a woman’s body there is a definitively valid argument of the sacrosanct nature of new life. If an egg is fertilized by sperm inside the uterus there is, in the “conception equals life” ideology, a discernible point where one could say, “there is now something where there previously was nothing”. But, when the discourse moves away from the confines of the womb, those pat and succinct zingers retain very little of their previous, logical authority. One of the points of contention by those opposed to embryonic stem cell research is that frozen embryos can survive, it seems, indefinitely in their cryogenic state. But what seems to emerge from that alleged moral high ground is exactly the point that those embryos can retain their original potency “forever” without ever becoming what we would refer to as a “human being”. It is possible then that one of the strongest argument against embryonic stem cell research becomes one of the most robust points on the other side. This is where I believe the differentiation between fertilization and conception is a needed distinction.

I cannot justifiably approach every frozen embryo as a life. If I do that, then I have eliminated the very essence of what life is by my own definition. The potential for life is not life, it is potential; any other view is linguistically irresponsible and morally reaching. But that is not the whole of the argument. While I do not believe a frozen embryo is a life, I do believe that the practice of creating embryos for the sole purpose of research, and not for conception, is unethical. It is unethical not because of any physical act but because of the moral trajectory that it either initiates or reveals. Creating the potential for life with no intention of creating life is like falling in love with someone for the sole purpose of being good at being in love with someone else in the future – it is a misunderstanding of both the process and the purpose. But in the process of creating actual life, as in vitro fertilization does, if there are residual benefits to that process, then both the moral trajectory as well as the scientific urgency are satisfied.

What I would say, as a protective caveat, is that I am not attempting to deconstruct the morality of in vitro fertilization in general, which I believe could prove to be far more ethically tenuous than studying unused embryos. That being said, any reproductive issue is difficult to deal with due to the profound involvement of human emotions. To add to that already inflammatory discussion a topic like the potential cure for terminal illness and the treatment of diseases is to exponentially increase the tension.

I approached this topic from a sound-bite indoctrinated, uninformed, conservative point of view. I would have been all for President Bush’s veto of the embryonic stem cell bill, and I would have been impressed by his backdrop of “snowflake kids”, and I would have, at the same time, been agreeing with something that I did not actually believe. I am a believer in life. I do not morally believe abortion is ever a solution, though I would be willing to politically acquiesce to allow for the practice in situations of rape and incest (which means that I am a closet situation ethicist). I say that to set up a quick foundation before saying that I believe there is nothing immoral or unethical about embryonic stem cell research. And in making those two assertions concurrently what I am actually saying is that I do not believe embryonic stem cell research is an issue of life. If there is a weakness in the practice it is not in the realm of right or wrong, in my opinion.

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