Just when is a human being really a human being?
While this question has been at the center of the abortion debate for decades, a new development in Great Britain and an intensifying debate in the United States may force policy-makers, finally, to address the question.
On Dec. 9, Britain's Human Genetic Advisory Commission (HGAC) officially recommended that the government permit research on the cloning of human embryos, in order to create genetic “spare parts” for those suffering from various illnesses. The advisory panel claimed that the “stem cells” of developing human embryos might lead to effective medical interventions such as new skin cells for burn victims, new brain cells for people living with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, or new cells to replace the bone marrow of cancer patients.
The stem cells of human embryos, removed from the embryo after it has been mutilated to prevent further development, can grow into any kind of human tissue. Some American researchers hope to be able eventually to grow heart, muscle, nerve, and other cells in lab dishes, to treat a variety of illnesses and, perhaps, to avoid the need for organ transplants.
According to The Universe, a British Catholic weekly, the procedure supported by the British advisory commission involves creating a cloned embryo, which would be kept alive for approximately six days before the stem's cells are extracted.
While the HGAC recommendation acknowledged that many people may express concern over the “commoditization” of human life by growing human embryos to be used for the medical treatment of other humans, the commission felt the potential medical results were too promising.
“We believe it would not be right at this stage to rule out limited research using cloning techniques, which could be of great benefit to seriously ill people,” the four-member commission wrote.
The dignity and human rights of these preborn children should not be disregarded because their parents have rejected them.
The commission's decision drew immediate criticism from pro-life organizations.
“Therapeutic cloning is not therapeutic for the cloned individual,” said Brendan Gerard, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child in Britain. “It is completely abhorrent that one individual should be created to serve the ends of another.”
Father Paul Murray, secretary to Britain's Bishops Bioethics Committee, was even more stinging in his criticism, calling the proposal “intrinsically evil.”
While the HGAC recommended that the government support research using the stem cells of human embryos, it is up to Parliament whether it will do so.
The developments in Britain have sparked renewed debate in the United States, where human embryo research has been banned since 1994. The ban is coming under assault from some researchers and scientists, who claim the law is stifling potentially life-saving research.
The 1994 law, sponsored by Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ariz.), prohibits federal funds from being used for any research on human embryos. While research using the stem cells of human embryos is being conducted in the United States, it is reportedly being funded by private sources.
In October, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced they were the first in the world to isolate and grow stem cells from donated human embryos. The main Wisconsin researcher, Dr. James Thomson, testified before a Senate subcommittee Dec. 2, asking for government support of stem cell research. Thomson testified that cultured stem cells from human embryos could produce new heart cells and neurons within the next five years — but only if the government funds the research.
“It is in the public interest for the government to support this research,” he told the committee.
His testimony, and a recent public campaign for such research, drew a passionate response from officials with Pro-Life Wisconsin, one of the state's major pro-life organizations. Bridget Fogarty, director of public affairs for Pro-Life Wisconsin, immediately responded to Thomson's claims in a Dec. 9 guest editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal.
“It has been stated that the embryos used in this research could not develop into ‘entire humans,’” Fogarty wrote. “The reason these embryos cannot continue to develop, is that the researchers mutilate the embryos so that they cannot receive nutrition. After mutilating the embryos, the researchers then harvest the embryonic stem cells.
“We know that the embryos involved in this research are human subjects, and it is obvious that a pre-born child cannot give voluntary consent. The dignity and human rights of these preborn children should not be disregarded because their parents have rejected them and donated them to science.”
Fogarty told the Register that Thomson and other researchers are clouding the real issue — that human beings are involved in the research.
“For their own inhumane research, they want to redefine what a human being is,” she said. “To them, these newly formed persons, with unique genetic codes and souls, are nothing more than organisms. By dehumanizing these embryos they hope to receive government funding for a variety of macabre research.”
Fogarty said Pro-Life Wisconsin is already lobbying state legislators to ensure that no state funding be used to support research using the stem cells of human embryos.
The eventual fate of the federal ban on human embryo research is uncertain. Pro-life forces lost votes in the House after the November elections, and some stem cell research supporters are optimistic that the votes exist to repeal the ban. President Clinton has also expressed a willingness to support the research.
‘Human beings are not ‘material’.’
In a letter to the chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission in November, Clinton said there was a difference between stem cell research and human embryo research writing, “Although the ethical issues have not diminished, it now appears that this (stem cell) research may have real potential for treating such devastating diseases as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Parkinson's disease.”
Pro-life forces say they expect a fight over the ban. Rep. Dickey has publicly pledged to defend the ban, citing the humanity of human embryos at every stage of development. Judie Brown, president of American Life League, said pro-life forces must be vigilant in defending the ban.
“In view of the recent decision in the United Kingdom, the news out of South Korea that a human being may have been cloned, and the ‘progress’ being made in the U.S., it is my view that we must not only work to sustain the ban, but we must press Congress to pass a ban on any such research, regardless of the source of funding involved,” she told the Register. “Human beings are not ‘material.’”
While the debate in Congress may be imminent, a report on stem cell research is expected from the National Bioethics Advisory Commission in the first half of 1999. The commission, filled with Clinton appointees, has not been friendly to pro-life concerns in the past. Pro-life supporters are not expecting a favorable report.
“This debate over research using the stem cells of preborn babies is going to intensify greatly in 1999,” said Pro-Life Wisconsin's Fogarty. “It's time to refocus our efforts on defending the tiniest and most defenseless preborn babies from this lethal research.”
Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Indiana.