Is Killing A Human Embryo Immoral

January 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

Or, 50 Ways To Kill Your Baby – The Sequel. The following screenshot from this morning deserves a comment or two. It’s a very important issue.

Embryonic stem cell headlines

I decided to read a few of these links, and others, to see how this news was reported. My comments are in red.

From CNN – “The field of embryonic stem cell research has been highly controversial, because in most cases, the research process involves destroying the embryo, typically four or five days old, after removing stem cells. These cells are blank and can become any cell in the body. Because of the destruction of embryos, most opponents believe this is a moral issue. Supporters of the research point to the potential for saving lives.” [Seems reasonable. We can save lives and the destroyed embryos are only four or five days old. How can this be a moral issue? Just a microscopic mini-hunk of tissue at risk. Right? Maybe not.]

From NBC – “Embryonic stem cells have been the focus of fierce debate since the mid-1990s. Many scientists see them as a watershed in the treatment of serious ailments because they have the potential to grow into any of the body’s cell types, promising the eventual generation of replacement nerve lines and vital organs, including the brain and the heart.

“But anti-abortion activists vigorously oppose the research because the cells come from human embryos and days-old human fetuses, which they contend [my emphasis] are fully human. Many of them want to limit research to stem cells derived from adult tissue, which most researchers contend have less potential to transform into other types of cells.” [Contending that these cells are fully human is a bold statement from the anti-abortion activists. And contending that adult stem cells have less potential? I would have expected the reporter to dig into these two points a bit. If we get this wrong, aren’t we talking about the murder of humans?––not potential humans but humans with potential.]

From L.A. Times opinion piece – “According to the appeals court’s ruling, the embryonic stem cells in question are derived from other stem cells, not a brand new batch of destroyed fertilized embryos. They’re like a photocopy of a photocopy, not photocopies from some brand new original. Current law bans funding of stem cell research that would destroy human embryos. What we’re talking about in this case [my emphasis] are human embryos destroyed long ago, with the stem cells used today split off from the original stem cells created back then.”….”The ethical argument is 11 years too late and the scientific argument is weak. Researchers should be encouraging more avenues of exploration, not less. [The court’s ruling has ramifications beyond this case. And would the reporter concede that a “brand new original” embryonic stem cell does have moral implication?]

From Forbes – Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute , said, “We couldn’t be happier that this frivolous [my emphasis], but at the same time potentially devastating distraction is behind us, and we can once again focus all our attention on advancing all forms of stem cell science, including research using embryonic stem cells – which are the gold standard against which we measure other types.” [Frivolous, huh?]

From Forbes – Robert Lanza, chief science officer for Advanced Cell Technology: ”We’re obviously delighted with the Supreme Court’s decision,” he told me in an email. “However, it’s a shame it took this long to put this lawsuit to rest, not to mention the potentially life-saving research it held up or slowed in the process.” [Emphasis all mine. A low regard of the moral issue it seems.]

Also in the same Forbes article – “Opponents of embryonic stem cell research, which involves destroying the donated embryos from which cell lines are derived, have long argued that the discovery of iPS cells in 2006 (for which Shinya Yamanaka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine this past year) obviates the need for embryonic stem cell research.” [The reported opposing perspective dealt only with the science––which is good. But questions of morality aren’t important to this discussion? Not even a mention?]

Having never been to journalism school, I can only assume from the above that investigative balance wasn’t emphasized to the reporters. Perhaps I’m wrong. But if I were writing on this issue, a question I would want answered is this:

Okay, Mr./Ms. Embryo. You’re certainly stirring the pot. Exactly, who or what are you?

“To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion . . . it is plain experimental evidence” (Dr. Jerome Lejeune, “Father of Modern Genetics” and discoverer of the cause of Down’s Syndrome. Testimony to Senate Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, April 23, 1981).

Fairly decisive language from my perspective. I wonder what the textbooks say.

The widely used medical textbook The Developing Human, Clinically Oriented Embryology, 6th Edition, Moore, Persaud, Saunders, 1998, states at page 2 that “The intricate processes by which a baby develops from a single cell are miraculous…. This cell [the zygote] results from the union of an oocyte [egg] and sperm. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being….” At page 18 this theme is repeated: “Human development begins at fertilization [emphasis in original]….”

From the Priests For Life website, I gleaned the following which I’ve either bulleted or highlighted.

  • At the fusion of the gametes, a “new human cell”, equipped with a new information structure, begins operating like an individual unit tending towards the complete expression of its genome, which manifests itself in a totality, which constantly and autonomously organizes itself until it forms a complete human organism. This “new human cell” is therefore a “new human individual” which initiates “its own vital cycle” and given the sufficient and necessary internal and external conditions, gradually develops and achieves its immense potential according to an intrinsic ontogenetic law and unifying plan.

The conclusion inferred from the biological data available today is that from the moment of fertilization the embryo is an individual human being, who is beginning this life cycle.

  • Before fertilization, the spermatozoon and the ovule only possess a mere possibility of making up a unified system and entity. The zygote, however, is an individual with his own life, and with his own identity given to him by a single unifying substantial principle.

Here is the key point. It’s brilliant.

The “Declaration on Procured Abortion” (1974) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says: “Moreover, it is not up to biological sciences to make a definitive judgement on questions which are properly philosophical and moral, such as the moment when a human person is constituted or the legitimacy of abortion. From a moral point of view this is certain: even if a doubt existed concerning whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder. ‘He too is a man who will be a man’ (Tertullian, Apologeticum, IX, 8)” (n.13).

The issue of embryonic stem cell research is perplexing, fascinating, confusing (to some), infuriating and a hundred other -ings. But I can’t help but think of a statement of mine from an earlier post. It’s harsh so I’m going to rephrase it as a question.

If I rip the head off an unborn child, or suffocate a newborn baby, or put a bullet in the brain of a one-year old, or hang a ten-year old or step on an embryonic cell, is the “crime” the same in all cases? From my perspective, a human life is extinguished. If I’m wrong on this, please explain.

I’m not surprised by some of the media’s lack of balance, but does integrity and fairness have to be thrown overboard? As for my thoughts on the Supreme Court, for the moment I’ll keep them private.

One last comment. Not for a moment have I forgotten the potential “life-saving” benefits of embryonic stem cell research (as with other stem cells). But, like abortion, what is the cost to our humanity to continue down such a path?