Science, like other disciplines, has the potential to be used for both good and bad. Approximately half a century ago, Nazi Germany's horrific abuses of scientific knowledge included experiments on unwilling human subjects. Today, Germany has done a drastic about-face. Lawmakers in Germany have just moved to ban the import of embryonic stem cells for research, seeing even the most microscopic flecks of human tissue as people or partial-people, potential victims that must be safeguarded. Experimentation on humans, the reasoning goes, was ghoulish in the 1940s and is equally ghoulish today.
The Germans' hesitation to experiment on human cells is certainly an improvement over the homicidal attitudes of the past, but in this case a bad analogy, driven by dark memories, has led to the wrong decision. Today's cutting-edge experiments bare no physical or moral resemblance to those of the Nazis.
Stem cell research, unlike reproductive cloning, does not involve putting an entire, living human being in potential jeopardy. It involves only the growing of cells of a desired type from a tiny clump of undifferentiated cells (resembling that created through normal fertilization) in a laboratory dish. No living, breathing, thinking human nothing that is any more a person than a microscopic piece of skin from your finger is being toyed with. If stem cells are to be treated with the same reverence as real people with minds and desires and the capacity to feel pain, we might just as well ban blood transfusions out of respect for the corpuscles involved. Banning stem cell research would be equally foolish, given that this research may one day lead to cell-replacement treatments for ailments from Parkinson's to diabetes. On the contrary, in its own way, the ban is a threat to life because it interferes with potentially valuable medical advances.
The Nazis were evil not because they committed science but because they committed murder. The important distinction would actually be blurred by a ban on stem cell research or therapeutic cloning. Similarly, we should not obscure the important difference between real genetic and biological research and the bogus master race doctrines that drove the Nazis' experiments.
Understandably haunted by the events of the last century, Germany is now debating banning any knowledge or products derived from Nazi experiments. If they were going to be truly consistent, the Germans might have to ban rocket and jet science, which made significant gains under the Nazis and had a motivation just as homicidal as their biology experiments: bombing their enemies. If the Germans next decide that stem cell research is unethical but the experiments proceed in other countries, will the Germans of sixty years hence find themselves living under a ban on all knowledge and products derived from stem cell research? Will Germans end up having abnormally high rates of Parkinson's or diabetes while the citizens of other nations live longer, healthier lives by employing cures derived from stem cell research?
If so, Germany's well-meaning politicians would hardly be showing compassion or affirming the value of life.
March 4, 2002
I have a question regarding the following quote from the article:
"Stem cell research, unlike reproductive cloning, does not involve putting an entire, living human being in potential jeopardy. It involves only the growing of cells of a desired type from a tiny clump of undifferentiated cells (resembling that created through normal fertilization) in a laboratory dish. No living, breathing, thinking human nothing that is any more a person than a microscopic piece of skin from your finger is being toyed with."
How are the cells being "toyed with" different from a human embryo? Are they not part of a living organism, with unique DNA, a combination of chromosomes from both an egg and a sperm? If the process by which they come into being "[resembles] that created through normal fertilization," in what ways does it not resemble it (discounting the location of the interaction)? If they were not toyed with and were allowed to progress naturally in a safe environment, what would happen? A "microscopic piece of skin from your finger" would not be able to grow up. Would these cells be able to?
If, as I fear, the answer is that this group of cells is as much a beginning to a unique human life as any babe in the womb, then this form of stem cell study is indeed genocide, and as much murder as the Nazi experiments. The scientific expertise being diverted to this procedure could, and should, be channeled into exploring the equally exciting possibilities available in adult stem cell research. There, the person can continue his or her life after donating the cells!
Note: This issue is dealt with at greater length in the Seavey column "Attack on the Clones."