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Spin City

Michael J. Fox isn't telling the whole truth about stem cells in those ads.

6:54 PM, Oct 25, 2006 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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Those who are willing to accept these biological realities argue that the direct and intentional killing of human embryos isn't unethical because human embryos lack the requisite dignity to have a right to life. This argument, however, is doomed to fail. The argument typically runs that since human embryos aren't self-aware and can't think or even feel pleasure or pain, they don't have a personal life that would merit protection. Animal life alone isn't enough to warrant moral status; one needs higher mental personal life. But, if simply being a member of the human species is not enough to merit full and equal moral status, one will be hard pressed to explain why newborn babies posses a right to life that other (non-human) animals do not. Newborn babies do not exhibit any higher mental life than other animals. That is, a newborn human baby behaves in ways solely "animal" and not "personal." In fact, it isn't until at least age two that human babies begin to display any outward signs of a personal life. So, for someone to draw a moral line any place prior to age two would be arbitrary, as the frequent indicators all fail: why does the complete formation of a brain count, but not the incipient formation, for example? Why does incipient formation count, but not the formation of the precursor of the brain? Why does the precursor count, but not the precursor to the precursor, all the way back to the one-celled zygote that each of us began life as?

The reason we treat the one-celled human zygote as the subject of profound worth and dignity is because it does possess the radical (root) capacity for higher mental functions, even if that basic ability is unexercised and incipient. The human embryo, unlike the chimp embryo or the dog embryo or any other embryo or cellular structure, is unique in possessing the internal information and active disposition to develop himself into an animal with linguistic-intellectual powers ("personal" life). In other words, human beings possess rational capacities in virtue of the type of animal they are. A human being, as opposed to any other animal, is the type of being which has the potential for higher mental acts and a personal life, even though at various times those abilities may not be apparent for various reasons--for example, because one is asleep, ignorant, young, sick, or old. But none of these physical or mental attributes--consciousness, youth, ignorance, health, or age--can alter the intrinsic dignity of an individual human.

Besides the moral objection to embryo-destructive stem cell research, there are other reasons to be appalled by these recent ads, for there is good reason to be skeptical about the prospects of technological success for embryonic stem cell research. When an embryonic stem cell is created from a cell of the early embryo, that cell--left in the embryo of which it was a part--would have produced many different tissue types as the cells descended from it progressed through stages of higher specialization. That is, cells in the early embryo are precursors to entire biological systems, and not merely particular tissue types. And scientists are having significant difficulty forcing them to behave in other ways. When scientists try to manipulate them into embryonic stem cells (ESC), they tend to cause potentially dangerous tumors.

Dr. James Sherley, associate professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explained this just a few weeks ago: "When you put them [ESC] in an environment where they can grow and develop, they make lots of different kind of tissues. This tumor formation property is an inherent feature of the cells. And all you have to do is simply inject them into an animal tissue--this happens at very high efficiency." These same conclusions were echoed just this week in a report in the journal Nature Medicine. The Washington Post summarized the conclusion aptly: "Injecting human embryonic stem cells into the brains of Parkinson's disease patients may cause tumors to form, U.S. researchers reported on Sunday." (Of course, Parkinson's disease is precisely what Michael J. Fox is suffering from and claiming embryonic stem cells will cure.) Currently, there are no solutions to this problem on the horizon. As Sherley put it: "And although some might say we can solve the tumor problem down the road, that's equivalent to saying we can solve the cancer problem, and we may, but that's a long time coming."