The Moral Dilemma of Embryonic Stem and Fetal Cell Research: A Proposed Solution

Nuclear transplantation, embryonic blastocyst stem cells, fetal cells, be they embryonic or adult stem cells, and adult stem cells from adults: All offer enormous promise to rid us of diseases that rob us of the joy of life and even life, itself. Which type of cell offers the greatest promise? No one knows at this point in our early research phases, and it will take time to find out. Because, however, of the magnitude of the medical promise, it is morally imperative that we press forward with our research efforts without undue delay.

It is postulated, with solid reasoning to support it, that the blastocyst embryonic cells are the most promising ones because they are still young enough to be totipotent having the miraculous capacity to create all the biologic systems required for the creation of a newborn baby.

The other cell types are thought to be more differentiated or pluripotent making them less capable of generating the natural therapies needed to attack disease. There is a reason to believe, however, that some fetal cells may also be totipotent.

Since embryonic and fetal cells offer great promise in the battle against disease, it is mandatory to address the moral objections against such use.

Objections to using embryonic stem and fetal cells for research purposes have to do with murder, not necessarily with killing. But the definition of murder is dependent on the particular circumstance. For example, killing another person in self-defense is not murder.

There is, I believe, a specific circumstance in which the use of such embryonic stem and fetal cells for research is not murder.

Women with serious medical problems undergo hysterectomies. Not uncommonly, they are in various phases of pregnancy at the time of their hysterectomies. Embryonic and fetal cells are present in these cases.

Women also undergo abortion in early pregnancy with the same embryonic stem and fetal cells available. There is, however, a clear and distinct moral difference between the two situations regarding the use of such cells for research purposes.

The uterus is the life-support system of the embryo and fetus. Once removed via hysterectomy, the uterus is no longer capable of supplying nature’s life-sustaining substances to the embryo and fetus. Neither, therefore, is viable any longer.

An analogy to a non-viable embryo or fetus is the brain-dead patient in irreversible coma whose life is totally dependent on a medically delivered life-support system. It is generally morally acceptable to remove the life-support system because the patient, like the hysterectomized embryo or fetus, is no longer a “viable person”. The act of removing life support is not, therefore, considered murder. Even Pope Paul II, a fervent supporter of the sanctity of life, in his encyclical letter,¬†Evangelium Vitae,¬†writes that life support systems can morally be terminated in certain conditions, “When death is imminent and inevitable.”

When an abortion is performed, the uterus or life-support system remains intact. This is comparable to the removal of a life-support system from a patient who still has the mental and physical ability to function as a person.

I propose that medical centers that specialize in the isolation and maintenance of embryonic stem and fetal cells obtained from hysterectomies be licensed to make them available for research purposes. Guidelines should be established under which these institutions would operate.

I have communicated with a number of sincere and impressively intelligent people on both sides of the murder and non-murder debate.

Those that hold to the belief that stem and fetal cell research are issues of science and reason alone have forgotten the lessons of history.

Science, in itself, is amoral. Newton’s theory of gravity has nothing to do with heaven or hell. It is in the applications of science that the issue of morality arises. Controlling this issue, morality, is the function of the society in which we live.

Take nuclear weapons as an example: Linus Pauling and Albert Einstein feared that the application of nuclear technology would lead to the nuclear bomb and a worldwide holocaust. And they were correct in their belief. As we know too well today, a simple order from the leader of a country with nuclear bombs to push a button or two could make Dante’s Inferno a reality instead of an epic poem.

Those that hold that a legitimate medically indicated hysterectomy for a potentially fatal disease in a pregnant woman is morally unacceptable, I believe, have employed the use of reasoning beyond its legitimate limits to justify such a conclusion. Indeed, the main conclusion of the so-called Age of Reasoning is that the over dependence on reasoning leads us to a moral vacuum. The brilliant David Hume, perhaps the greatest intellect of that era, concluded that we cannot know anything. But he used reason to arrive at this conclusion!

There are more important “other ways” beyond the use of scrupulous reasoning by which we make judgements about life and morality. Tradition, religion, wisdom culled from life’s daily experiences both within and without the family are some of the essential foundations of the vast majority of life’s held values. Love, respect and fairness come from these rich sources of experience and not from simple syllogistic reasoning starting from a tabula rasa.

I’ve attempted to use common sense reasoning to make the point of the moral differences between hysterectomized and non-hysterectomized embryonic and fetal tissue for research purposes. But I have also turned to that “other way” to help make my judgement.

For example, if a man whose spouse is in a fatal coma and knows full well that an embryonic stem or fetal cell-derived therapy developed from hysterectomized embryo or fetal cells in her physician’s syringe would bring her back to normal health, yet would refuse that his loved one receive such therapy, it is important to honestly ask the question, “Who, in such an instance, would be the “murderer?”