If there is one branch of science that is guaranteed to incite moral outrage it’s biology, specifically those fields involving embryos.
So when the political hot potato of stem cell research reared it’s head recently, it was obvious that the usual misinformed objections to the research would be aired loudly.
But what is stem cell research and why is it being pursued? Stem-cell research is the most promising field of medical research at present. Stem cells can become any tissue in the human body and have therefore tremendous implications for treating severly injured to those who have been ravaged by disease. Scientists are understandably excited by the prospects this research has to offer. Given the potential for the relief of seemingly incurable human suffering, it is unthinkable that this research could be opposed.
However, like most debates over scientific progress, the emotional responses of those opposing stem cell research virtually prevent rational discourse from taking place. This can be seen clearly in the dismissal of the use of excess In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) embryos by religious groups, specifically Right To Life NZ.
Groups such as these make a number of unprovable claims that are inevitable when the claimants invoke the creator of the universe into the equation.
Their view is clear, unequivocal and direct: experimentation using human embryos is killing a human being. They claim that a Creator (The Christian God) installs a soul into the egg at the moment of conception, effectively making the newly formed zygote a human being. Further than that, they claim that the embryo then has the same rights as a fully grown human being. To the pro-life advocates, that is the end of the story.
These forms of conversation stopping tactics provide a poor platform to make decisions about the future of stem-cell research and IVF embryos.
Given the enormous potential of stem-cell research, we owe it to ourselves to base any discussion – political, ethical or scientific – on the best information we have available.
So what do we actually know about the embryos that are used in stem-cell research? Can a collection of cells really be considered a human being and therefore be given the same rights as an alive human being?
The ethics of granting the status of a living human being to that of a small collection of cells is questionable.
At three days old, a human embryo is grand total of 150 cells and is termed a blastocyst. At this stage, the blastocyst does not have a nervous system and therefore cannot feel anything. The nervous system of an embryo does not begin forming until about 24 weeks after conception. This is a crucial distinction when we look at granting a small collection of cells the same status as a human being that does have nervous tissue and therefore can feel.
If suffering were a concern to pro-life advocates then the obvious solution to the debate is to support stem-cell research, as it offers great promise in diminishing the amount of suffering in the world.
The argument that the creator of the universe endows the embryo at conception with a soul also has its problems. Blastocysts can split thereby creating an additional embryo. Conversely, two blastocysts can fuse together to create a single indvidual. If the ensoulment argument true then what happens to the extra soul when two blastocysts become one? What becomes of the soul of the blastocyst that divides into two? Does the soul halve? These are important points to take note of if the ensoulment-at-conception argument is to be taken seriously.
The idea that a fertilised egg is a human being, as the pro-lifers tell us, overlooks an important fact – most fertilised eggs don’t make it – most are miscarried. Development into a baby is actually a low probability event. Are we to mourn this wholesale death of fertilised eggs?
Furthermore, eggs and sperm are genetic halves of a potential human being. Both are as alive as a fertilised egg and both die in large numbers everyday. Shouldn’t we be trying to save these potential humans by preserving as many sperm and eggs as possible? This reveals the absurdity of the “embyro is a human being or potential human argument”. Saying that sperm, egg or fertilised egg are as important as a an live, sentient, feeling human being is ethically indefensible.
It would be naïve of me to think that these points I raise above will change the minds of the fundamentalists who by nature do not revise their beliefs given new evidence. Scientific progress in all its forms will have detractors – science advances into uncharted territory. This is even more reason to answer the ethical questions that inevitably arise with sound judgement, reason and rationality.