Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 20, 2002
Stop the stem cell research bill
Frozen embryos are -- in fact -- suspended lives
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
One of my favourite stories from the Old Testament is that about the judgment of Solomon (1 Kings 3:16-28).
Two prostitutes live in the same house and both of them give birth to a child within days of one another. Unfortunately one of the children dies and a dispute is enjoined.
One mother alleges that the other woman switched her own dead child for her live child while she was asleep. The other mother vehemently denies the allegation.
They wrangle before Solomon, declaring back and forth: "My son is the one who is alive; your son is dead."
The king asks for a sword and decries the living child should be cut in two, with half being given to one, and half to the other.
At this the woman who was the real mother feels deeply for her son and says: "I beg you my lord, let them give her the live child; on no account let them kill him!" But the other says: "He shall belong to neither of us. Cut him in half!"
Solomon then gives his decision: "Give the live child to the first woman and do not kill him. She is his mother." Everyone heard of the pronounced judgment and recognized that he possessed wisdom for dispensing justice.
Regrettably, such wisdom is frequently lacking in the halls of government today. Rather than discern the truth and stand on principle, it's much easier to find a compromise, even if it means succumbing to those shouts: "He shall belong to neither of us. Cut him in half!"
A few months ago, the Canadian Institute of Health Research, created by an act of Parliament and mandated to be pro-active, interdisciplinary, forward-looking and ethical, issued a report producing a set of guidelines allowing public funding of research on embryos that remain after fertility treatments.
Many of us were concerned that the report of CIHR pre-empted the legislative process and discounted the views of ordinary Canadians.
It would now seem that the report was nothing but a trial balloon setting the stage for the Act Respecting Assisted Human Reproduction which turns out to be a compromise between the American and British approach.
Dr. Alan Berstein, the head of the CIHR, said he was pleased with the government's approach to embryonic stem cell research as it balances the great opportunities posed by this technology with Canadians' valid ethical concerns.
The doctor might be pleased, but valid ethical concerns have still not been met.
Furthermore, after finally tabling legislation on reproductive technology, Health Minister Anne McLellan hastened to remind everyone: "These are surplus embryos. You know what happens to them? (she repeated the question, then paused for effect) . . . They go to the garbage."
So, how do we solve this ethical dilemma? Simple. We ban the easy cases, that is, the cloning of humans, the creation of human-animal hybrids, and sex selection of babies for non-medical purposes.
Secondly, create a new body, the Assisted Human Reproduction Agency of Canada to regulate the scientific and medical use of human reproductive materials.
Of course, the agency could permit research using stem cells from embryos left over from infertility treatment, but scientists would have to show the use of embryos was necessary for their research aims. And who would make this determination? The government would appoint the board.
According to the act it would be illegal to give a financial incentive to a surrogate mother, but she could be compensated for reasonable expenses. However, you guessed it. Permissible expenses would be determined by the new agency.
Both Berstein and Health Minister McLellan, bedeviled by technological possibilities, forget that the materials kept in frozen storage are human beings. They are not just fertilized eggs or random collection of cells.
They are whole human organisms. They contain a full set of human chromosomes. They are human beings at a very early stage of embryological development. Whether one is a human being does not depend upon size or one's location in the physical world.
They are not "potential" human life. They are precisely what human beings look like at that point of their lives. Freezing an embryo does not kill it, but merely arrests its development.
Scientists have long recognized the principle that no experimental or research procedure should be conducted on human subjects if it provides no direct benefit or if the risks to the subject are inordinately great.
In the case of human embryo experimentation, not only is there no direct benefit to the subject, but the embryo is directly killed. This cannot be done for whatever reason, even in view of the possibility that it might provide advances in science and medicine.
No amount of public benefit can ever justify the deliberate killing of a human being. The argument is particularly hollow when the same results could be achieved by alternate means such as the use of adult stem cells or the stem cells derived from umbilical cords or placentas. Such research would have no ethical complications and has already shown highly promising results.
No human being, including the embryo, should ever be used as a means to an end; no human being should be considered as "surplus" or "spare." It is always wrong to destroy another human being even to help another.
We cannot kill in the name of science.
In dispensing justice Solomon didn't listen to the passionate cry: "He shall belong to neither of us. Cut him in half!"
Neither should we.
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