Facebook Twitter

Profound questions frame stem-cell debate

SHARE Profound questions frame stem-cell debate

WASHINGTON — "I think (stem-cell research) represents such an extraordinary opportunity to help humankind that we really ought to find a way to move forward on it — but with really tight regulations so we don't start creating human embryos specifically for that purpose."

That's Elizabeth Kiss, director of Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics, considering whether the nation's huge supply of frozen embryos should be made available for scientific research.

This is her Duke colleague, Amy Laura Hall, an assistant professor of theological ethics: "If I thought we would stop only with the embryos we currently have, maybe — maybe — I'd begin to think about changing my mind. But nobody thinks we'll stop with the ones we already have. And for that reason, I'd rather they be destroyed than used."

The two views, the thoughtful conclusions of two smart scholars, don't exhaust the possibilities for thinking about stem-cell research, an issue with which President Bush has been struggling. But they do manage to bracket nicely what I take to be mainstream thought on the issue. One is pro-life, but willing to accept that there are cases where abortion is the lesser of evils. The other pro-choice, but accepts that a human fetus — whether a constitutional person or not — is deserving of respectful treatment.

And both have profound questions regarding the possibilities that seem to be just around the corner for treating such stubborn diseases as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries.

For Kiss, who wants the research to go forward, though with great caution, a key question concerns government funding of the research on embryos. She recognizes the "deep moral disagreements" we have over the status of embryos, and she's uncomfortable with the notion of the government, in effect, funding one side of the disagreement.

On the other hand, the potential benefits are so huge that she finds it hard to make an ethical case for merely discarding the estimated 100,000 frozen embryos that in all likelihood will never be implanted.

"Also, it's hard to know what would be the full impact of a ban on federal funding of the research. Presumably it would take the National Institutes of Health out of the equation, but what about research universities that rely heavily on federal grants? Maybe the best we can do is to preserve federal funding under strictly controlled and regulated conditions, rather than leave the whole matter to profit-driven private entities."

Hall offers a different pair of cautions. The first is that we're "crossing a major boundary without any sense of how significant a boundary it is." We may be talking now about debilitating diseases, she says, but what's to keep us from turning the technology later to cosmetics or even eugenics?

Her second flag: "We keep hearing that this is about 'the alleviation of human suffering.' But the people of my generation (Hall is 33) have not sacrificed our own time, energy and resources to the alleviation of the suffering that is all around us. What we really hope to alleviate, I suspect, is our own potential suffering.

"Michael J. Fox is the 'Peter Pan' of my generation. He represents for us perpetual youth and success. We look at him and we're terrified. If 'Peter Pan' can deteriorate and die . . . "

But for Hall the real issue has to do with the use of embryos, what she describes as "nascent human life."

"You might say we've got these huge vats of frozen embryos most of which are going to be destroyed, so let's use them for research. But what happens when the research is a success and we get to the point where we no longer have vats of embryos? Won't the pressure be irresistible to produce more of them?"

She is at pains not to sound like the "lunatic fringe" of the pro-life movement, but she does worry about the casual razing of moral barriers. "We've accepted — I've accepted — that in certain rare cases abortion is tenable. But it's a whole new thing to move from there to the position that the destruction of embryos is potentially a moral good. That's why if you put the choice as whether to implant or destroy (the frozen embryos), I'd rather destroy them."

Hall and Kiss, mutually respectful though near philosophical opposites, use the same phrase to express their major concerns: The "commodification of human life."

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.