Stem cells and the limits of life

This was the first post ever on Thoughts from Kansas.

On the third anniversary of the decision to limit stem cell research, Laura Bush endorsed the existing stem cell policy. Lots of bloggers, especially Chris Mooney, have been pushing this as a wedge issue that the Democrats can win on, and rightly so. Even the Bushes seem to think so.

But there are just some fascinating philosophical issues in this that get glossed over too fast as this has been politicized. The debate, for those joining us recently, is to what extent stem cells obtained from human embryos ought to be accessible to scientists conducting research. Some people think life begins at the instant sperm and egg join. They think that destroying an embryo – even to obtain life saving cures down the road – is murder.

This gets complicated because the embryos scientists want to use are produced in fertility clinics. The clinic induces ovulation, harvests a dozen eggs, and fertilizes all of them in vitro. They let them all grow for a while, and then implant the three or four that appear healthiest. The others are frozen indefinitely.

“Pro-life” advocates see those as living beings, but seem to have no problem with the practice of “selective harvest,” in which, once the pregnancy has reach a favorable stage, all but one or two of the embryos are aborted. Nor do people who hold that blastula is equivalent to an adult human life object to those eight cell spheres being frozen forever. It’s only when someone wants to do something useful with them that it becomes problematic.

This bears some similarity to a conundrum posed by some philosophers about a man in a truck. He’s driving along, and suddenly, the brakes fail. Ahead of him is a school bus full of children, and to the side is a single child walking to the bus. If he turns, he kills only one person, but he has made an act of commission in selecting that person to die. If he allows the truck to continue in its course, he can feel like he isn’t responsible for killing dozens of children, because chance put them there.

If you accept a world view in which events are all part of a plan, then the school bus is in front of the truck for a reason, and a grand purpose exists in the unknowable future for the thousands of embryos frozen in fertility clinics around the world. Therefore, to take a postive act that chooses between options – rather than allowing the clock to run out – shifts responsibilty from the unknowable mind of God to your own imperfect human mind.

If you believe that events can happen by chance alone, you have to respond differently. If the bus is ahead of you because Timmy, the first kid picked up in the morning, tripped and slowed everything down, then your decision to plow into the bus isn’t random, it’s an act that you choose. You bear the responsibility for your decisions because sometimes things just happen, and as intelligent people, we have to respond to surprises, and accept responsibility for those responses.

The problem of valuing potential or actual life is an increasingly big problem, and we ought to have an honest and broad philosophical debate about these issues in society. Choosing to use blastulae for scientific research, choosing whether to have an abortion, signing a living will, carrying out the orders in a living will, and making decisions on behalf of a person without a living will are all aspects of this question. It’s hard not to feel like there is a difference between standing up for the life of a four cell blastula that will never come to term and standing up for a four year old who needs a bone marrow transplant, or for an eighty four year old with diabetes, heart disease, and prostate cancer. As a society, we have quietly and subtly created ways for the terminally ill adult to make decisions about their end of life. The blastula and the infant can’t decide between the paths available to them. Society has to establish rules or defaults, but they needn’t be absolute. We should no more compell a blastula to be kept in a freezer forever than forbid a child with cystic fibrosis to drown in her own mucus. Why not allow the people who contributed the egg and sperm that compose a blastula to release that embryo to science? In essence, exercise their power to withdraw life support and allow the remains to be used to save that CF patient, or a father who – like Laura Bush’s or my mother’s – suffered from Alzeimer’s.