Archive for the 'philosophy & politics' Category

After Life

Let’s talk about stem cell research, specifically embryonic stem cell research. Some are for it, some against. I’ll state right now that I’m in favor of it, and for all the commonly held reasons. In this essay I’m addressing the folks who are against it.

Without further preamble let’s get to the heart of the matter. Those folks who are against embryonic stem cell research oppose it on the principle that a human embryo, at whatever state of development, is a human life and ought not to be destroyed; that the destruction of a human embryo is tantamount to abortion, which is tantamount to murder. Leaving aside the question of whether it is murder, that being a legal judgment, for the purposes of this discussion, and conceding nothing on a larger stage, let’s assume that a human embryo is a human being with all the human and civil rights guaranteed it by the Constitution and the laws of the States. What are we to do with all of them?

During a program of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) many more embryos are produced than are implanted in the mother. Barring a legal ban on the practice or a quantum leap in IVF technology this will continue to be the case, probably for many years. Even with embryo adoption on the rise there are thousands of embryos being destroyed or being allowed to die through aging every year. Are we to allow these babies, there I said it, these babies to die without thought? Does this callous disregard of these human lives properly honor them? How do we ethically confront the problem of what to do with all these frozen babies? How can we best make sense of, and bring some meaning to, their all-too-brief lives? Perhaps if we look at how families deal with the death of post-born infants we can approach an answer to this problem.

When an infant dies, whether through accident, random violence or genetic defect, one of the questions posed to the parents is whether they’d be willing to let the baby’s organs be used for transplantation. Now, some parents are unable to come to terms with the decision to allow these procedures, some parents may have a religious stand against it, and some parents are simply unwilling to let their child’s organs be used. But many parents come to see that by allowing their child’s organs to be transplanted their child becomes instrumental in saving the life of another. That though their child’s life is over in his death he can give life, allowing the organ recipient the chance at the full lifetime that he didn’t have and sparing the parents of the recipient the grief and horror that the donor’s parents are experiencing.

If a human embryo is as much a human being as a newborn or an infant of a few months, shouldn’t it’s parents be allowed to make that same decision for their unborn child? Shouldn’t the embryo’s organs be allowed to be used in ways that will save other lives? True, embryos don’t have proper organs yet, but they do have body parts. Those body parts are called cells. Cells are what an embryo has to give.

Stem cell research is the embryonic equivalent of organ donation.

We allow, indeed we encourage, parents of newborns or young infants who die to allow their children to give the gift of life through their deaths. How can we say that frozen embryos may not give that same gift? How can we disallow that selfless, charitable, final gift from deceased pre-fetal persons? If an embryo’s parents want their unborn and slowly dying children to help give others a fuller, longer, healthier life, who are we to disallow them this fashion of honoring their children’s brief lives? I say we can’t.

I submit that the decision of what to do with frozen embryos must remain up to the parents. And if they decide that the best way to honor their children is to donate them to medical research, then the government ought to support them in that decision. And government support means funding. The Government must fund embryonic stem cell research, just as it funds organ transplantation.

Here’s quite a good article about the increasing population of frozen embryos, published in Mother Jones July/August 2006 issue.