Permit Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Though perhaps difficult to answer, the question framing the abortion and embryonic stem cell research debates is easy to pose: At what point from conception on do we ascribe the status of “person” and hence recognize the rights of embryos and fetuses? Once this question is answered, conclusions about abortion and embryonic stem cell research follow like water off a ledge.For those who conclude that personhood occurs at conception, unless the mother’s life is at risk, the right to life trumps any right a woman has to make decisions about medical treatment. On the other hand, if embryos and fetuses are only human “tissue” and not persons, then there is no moral impediment to the removal and disposal of embryos and fetuses.

In contradiction to many Conservative friends, I have argued that personhood is associated with brain wave activity in the neocortical area of the brain where higher-level mental activities reside. Such activity does not occur until the second trimester. Hence, abortions in the first trimester ought to be permitted by legislative decision. The judicial fiat of Roe v. Wade was not the way to permit first trimester abortions, but that is another story.

In the second trimester and most certainly, the final trimester, termination of pregnancy should occur only in the case when the mother’s life is threatened. Even then, if a fetus can be delivered in a fashion that does not compromise the mother’s life, the baby should be delivered and provided the maximum opportunity to thrive.

Under this framework for ascribing personhood, embryonic stem cell research should not only be permitted, but also federally funded. Stem cells are not, nor are the embryos from which they are derived, persons. If such tissue provides fruitful avenues for important medical research, there is actually a positive ethical obligation to use such cells.

There are some in the pro-life movement, like Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who are both against abortion and yet for embryonic stem cell research. Hatch, has argued that an embryo is not a person until it is implanted in a womb. Surely, that is a tortuous and contrived distinction brought upon by the understandable desire to make ethical room for potentially important medical advances from embryonic stem cell research. If he gave it more thought, Hatch would agree that if it were medically possible to bring an embryo to full term without ever being in womb, he would still ascribe personhood to a late term fetus. The physical position of an embryo or fetus with respect to the womb is irrelevant to personhood. To argue otherwise is to concede inadvertently a distinction crucial to abortion absolutists who would permit abortion at any point in pregnancy. It is illegal to suck the brains out of a late term fetus that is outside the womb, but permissible (and some abortion absolutists argue Constitutionally protected) to do so in a “partial birth” abortion.

Even if one allows for the ethical permissibility of embryonic stem cell research, human stem cells are not a commercial commodity that can be traded and marketed indiscriminately. Just as we do not permit marketing of kidneys, the disposition of stem cells should be regulated. Bill First, Republican Senator from Tennessee and the only doctor in the Senate has proposed a reasoned compromise to the stem cell research question. Though it is perhaps more restrictive than I would propose, President George Bush would still be wise to adopt First’s approach. Essentially, First would

  • Restrict research to stem cells from embryos slated for disposal and not created specifically for research.
  • Ban cloning.
  • Increase research in the use of adult stem cells. This research poses fewer ethical problems.
  • Establish an intensive oversight system.

This regime would allow federally-funded embryonic stem research to go forward as we struggle to understand the potentials and hazards of such research.

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