Human embryonic stem cells offer the promise of a new regenerative medicine in which damaged adult cells can be replaced with new cells. Research is needed to determine the most viable stem cell lines and reliable ways to promote the differentiation of pluripotent stem cells into specific cell types (neurons, muscle cells, etc.). To create new cell lines, it is necessary to destroy preimplantation blastocysts. This has led to an intense debate that threatens to limit embryonic stem cell research. The profound ethical issues raised call for informed, dispassionate debate.
Gerald D. Fischbach, Ruth L. Fischbach
Submitter: Ruth L. Fishbach | firstname.lastname@example.org
Published November 22, 2004
Dr Wolk misunderstands or ignores several important points in our article.
Dr. Wolk states that our claim for the promise of stem cells is "mere demagoguery" because "We simply don't know it yet." This is exactly our point. Research is needed to fully explore the therapeutic and diagnostic potential of stem cells. We use "promise" in the sense of "expectation." This is not our view alone. Many of our most distinguished cell and developmental biologists, as well as those in the affected advocacy communities, have made the same point.
The slippery slope argument has always been a weak one based on fear and ignorance. No important advance in medicine from development of digitalis therapy to heart transplantation would be possible without risk. Moreover, science has shown that it can be regulated. The Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) is one example. The laws in England that regulate embryo research and creation of embryos for research purposes while banning reproductive cloning (which requires the easily identified act of implantation of a blastocyst into a receptive uterus) is another.
Studies of frozen (200 cell) blastocysts that have been produced in a test tube and that will never be implanted in a uterus should not be compared with victims of Nazi experimentation. These blastocysts are doomed to be discarded because they have been produced in excess of clinical need. The comparison is absurd and abhorrent on the face of it.
We have deep respect for human life and have dedicated our lives to the relief of human suffering. Yet to maintain that "killing" human embryos is intrinsically wrong ignores the complexity of the world we live in. We must decide between competing values every day. One cannot disregard the moral imperative to relieve the suffering of millions of people with degenerative disorders by failing to explore promising avenues of research.
Submitter: Robert Wolk | email@example.com
Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN
Published November 16, 2004
The precondition for a debate on embryonic stem cell research is lack of prejudice. Unfortunately, Fischbach & Fischbach assume a priori that such research is acceptable, which leads them to a series of flawed arguments.
1. They maintain that as long as the embryo does not have a developed nervous system, it should be considered as a brain dead person from whom organs are removed. There is however a fundamental difference between the embryo and the brain dead person. The embryo is not dead or irreversibly damaged, is healthy and capable of developing into a free-living individual. If brain dysfunction in the brain dead person were only transient, it would obviously not be ethical to use his/her organs.
2. The slippery slope argument is much more compelling than the authors want to admit. If we accept that a human life can be destroyed for any, however noble, reason, then our mentality will be irreversibly “infected” by the notion of relativity of human life. In Nazi Germany hundreds of “regular” doctors willingly participated in experiments on humans, only because they were convinced that they were working for a higher good and their experimental subjects were subhuman.
3. The authors use the argument that “the desire to know is intrinsic to humans”. People have many desires and we do not give them all the same moral value. If someone desired to study anatomy, would it justify killing a human being to satisfy one’s curiosity? We have a moral instinct, which is as natural as the desire to know. It is this moral instinct that makes us intuitively know that killing human embryos is intrinsically wrong. Unfortunately, we ignore this moral instinct only to pursue and excuse other “desires”.
4. The authors suggest that “use of stem cells promises revolutionary advances”. This is mere demagoguery. We simply don’t know it yet. And even if we did, the end does not justify the means - unless we are prepared to pursue biological survival at the expense of our humanity.
5. The authors warn of the danger of religious opinions in this debate. In fact, one of the most dangerous trends in our society is not religious, but scientific fanaticism – a new ideology, which maintains that the very nature of science and the expected benefits justify all means and that scientists may therefore have unquestionable authority to decide. This is indeed a very slippery slope.