Richard D. Erlich

On March 9, President Barack Obama lifted the ban on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. This will not end the debate on the ethics of such research but should intensify it. On the one hand, I personally want robust research using stem cells, and, on the other hand, I want such research performed under broad, well-considered policies governing the in vitro (“in glass”-artificial) production and manipulation of human embryos for any reason. Here, I just want to immodestly help clear the ground for such a continuing discussion. So: two points of clarification. First, as with abortion, the stem cell issue has nothing to do with “when life begins.” Life doesn’t begin; it began. How do I know? Well, the Bible tells me so, specifically in the creation story in the Book of Genesis.

I also know because that’s what I was taught in my biology courses; biology and the Bible agree that once it got started, life was passed on. There was an old belief in “spontaneous generation”-the sun breeding maggots in meat and all-but that belief was dying out in the face of close observation in the modern period (flies laid eggs in the meat), and it got the coup de grâce in the 1860s by no less a scientist than Louis Pasteur.

Life yields life. The sperm are alive, the egg is alive and the zygote and embryo that develop are alive. As the anti-abortion folk say, “There’s always a death in an abortion,” and, undoubtedly, human cells die in embryonic stem cell research. The serious questions include just what is it that dies and the legal status it-or, he or she-deserves.

And here we move on to a second clarification.

Start with the old line, “Don’t assert ‘All life is sacred’ when chomping on a hamburger.” Also don’t make such assertions while eating a carrot or after rinsing your mouth with Listerine. If all life is sacred, I’m in big trouble: I worked in microbiology labs where I was responsible for the death of bacteria by the billions.

I’ve also killed a whole lot of cockroaches. And, more seriously, in other lab work I killed many rats, some dogs, a rabbit, at least one frog and a cat. I feel guilty about the mammals and regret the frog. I have no regrets about the cockroaches, even though cockroaches are many-celled animals of some complexity. The embryos used for stem cell research are at the blastocyst stage of 70 to 100 cells, and there’s the possibility of using embryos at the stage of a morula, at about 16 cells.

Some of the cells in embryonic stem cell research will found cell lines that can go on indefinitely; the rest will die. More important, the potential humans these bunches of cells might have become will never be. In terms of what we do, not what we say, most of us do not believe that all life is sacred or even most life; we do, however, believe strongly that human beings have special status and that human life should be carefully conserved.

Should we grant human status to a ball of human cells or even to a zygote, the one-celled fertilized human egg? That is one key legitimate question-there are others-and it’s a difficult one; it shouldn’t be muddied by misstating it in terms of the origins of life or by hypocritical assertions about all life’s sanctity.

The question certainly shouldn’t be confused by the incredibly arrogant idea that only humans really live. It’s possible that only the human soul truly lives-lives eternally, not the fleeting mortal life-but that argument is religious and should be openly religious.

Richard D. Erlich worked summers in college at Michael Reese Medical Center in Chicago and for Illinois Public Health; he retired from the Miami University department of English and currently lives in Port Hueneme, Calif.

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