The White House has released a domestic policy report regarding stem cell research. It is titled, Advancing Stem Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life and it is a great overview of what we know about stem cell science and some alternatives to using human embryos that are being explored. I am very proud of our President for sticking to his principles on this important issue and for not ignoring the science in the process. Stem cell science is broader than just embryonic stem cell research. There are a number of other sources for human stem cells that do not involve the destruction of nascent human life, many of which have qualities similar to those found in human embryos.
The report also includes an appendix on embryo adoption and another addressing human cloning.
Embryos are humans in their earliest developmental stage. We do not have to think that human embryos are exactly the same in all ways as older humans to believe that they are entitled to respect and protection. Each of us originated as a single-celled embryo, and from that moment have developed along a continuous biological trajectory throughout our existence. To speak of “an embryo” is to designate a human being at a particular stage.
Our nation was founded on the principle that all of us are created equal, and endowed with a right to exist that is shared fully by all humans. There is no such thing as an excess life. And the fact that a human lacks some particular capacity, or even is going to die, does not justify experimenting on that individual, or exploiting him or her as a natural resource. That has long been the standard in medical ethics—as encoded in the Hippocratic Oath, as well as more modern codes like the Physician’s Oath in the 1948 Declaration of Geneva, which states: “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception.”
A policy that defends the inviolability of human life does not preclude the hopeful possibilities of new findings and new therapies. It simply means we must harness the creative powers of our advancing knowledge only to humane and morally balanced means and ends. Amidst today’s dizzying pace of technological innovation, it is worth taking care to make sure that our moral and ethical policies keep up. The biotechnology revolution will bring sound and wholesome human results over the long run only if it is sensibly governed.
The stem cell debate is only the first in what will be an onrushing train of biotechnology challenges in our future. We must establish a constructive precedent here for taking the moral dimensions of these issues seriously. We must make certain we don’t force ourselves into a false choice between science and ethics—because we need both.