The debate about stem cell research focuses on money and morality, on how to pay for this enterprise and how to guarantee that it is guided by ethical principles. In California last month, 60 percent of the voters dealt with the first of these concerns but not with the second. They passed Proposition 71, an initiative that authorizes the state to float a bond issue that will provide $3 billion over 10 years for one specific and controversial type of stem cell research: experimentation with stem cells harvested from human embryos about a week old.
The voters who supported Proposition 71 hope that embryonic stem cell research will eventually lead to nearly miraculous therapies. These cells are undifferentiated and have the potential of changingmorphing, as it is calledinto the cells that build up tissues and organs in other parts of the body. Biomedical researchers speculate that it may one day be possible to infuse embryonic stem cells into the brain of a victim of Parkinson’s disease or into the pancreas of a diabetic patient to effect a cure by replacing damaged cells.
It is important to note, however, that so far not even one cure has been effected using embryonic stem cells. Moreover, it is not certain that infusions of embryonic stem cells would be safe. They might also proliferate wildly and generate lethal tumors.
The voters who rejected Proposition 71 did not do so because they were indifferent to the sufferings of disabled people. Some may have judged the bond issue plan too risky, but many appear to have been motivated by moral considerations. Embryonic stem cells are gathered for research purposes by a procedure that destroys the embryos. Some scientists may remark dismissively that these tiny embryos, regularly described as no bigger than a grain of sand, are no more than a cluster of cells. But other observers, including biologists, recognize the embryo as a human life at the very beginning of its existence. One need not be either a cytologist or a Christian to agree with the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it says that the human embryo should be respected and defended in its integrity.
Some advocates of embryonic stem cell research seem to conceal, or at least rarely mention, the presence of other sources from which stem cells may be derived without fatal consequences. They can be culled from adult tissuefrom bone marrow, for examplewithout harming the donor. Moreover, there are already on record instances of significant healings that have been achieved through adult stem cell therapy.
To be sure, California may find itself too financially strapped to appropriate those billions for embryonic stem cell research. Whatever the outcome, the state’s electorate has stepped up the momentum of a debate that is likely to grow more heated, because it is intertwined with intensely poignant problems of human suffering.
In this debate, however, there are some points on which all sides can agree. There is, to begin with, a general consensus that scientific research and the astonishing technology that it has made possible are great human endeavors that should be advanced, as long as their development is in accord with moral norms. All decent people will also agree that the compassionate care of the sick and disabled is an obligation shared by the whole human family.
There are, of course, differences in defining the precise ethical standards that should govern both biomedical research and the care of the sick. It is sometimes said that people who are not experts in these fields are not qualified to judge what is right or wrong. Ordinary citizens can properly point out that one need not know how to make nuclear weapons to know that hydrogen bombs should not be dropped on cities.
The debate over embryonic stem cell research cannot be fully resolved, because it is ignited by irreconcilable views of what reverence for life requires. It should be possible, however, to define the role of government in this contested area in a way that respects the moral convictions of all parties to the debate.
Embryonic stem cell research should not be subsidized by public funds. It is already well subsidized by private sources, and this will continue because of the commercial possibilities for pharmaceutical companies. On the other hand, federal and state monies should be used to support adult stem cell research. Last year the National Institutes for Health allotted $191 million for adult stem cell studies. If this relatively tiny sum were greatly expanded, researchers might develop therapies that would be ethical, effective and safe. The Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities sponsored by the U.S. Catholic bishops has a neat slogan for this goal: Let’s Find Cures We Can All Live With.