While reading the paper, my airline seatmate blurted out to no one in particular, "They don't get it—it's not about 'ethics'! This stem cell thing is a no-brainer. What matters is people are dying and we need to do all we can to help." The woman next to me put down her book, stared at him for a moment, and gently said, "It's all about ethics, the ethics of killing children."
When it comes to the issue of using embryonic stem cells for research into new pathways of healing for the severely afflicted, emotions on both sides run high. If the rhetoric is to be trusted, the debate over embryonic stem cell research is a pitched battle between two irreconcilable positions—those who value the life of a tiny cluster of newly fertilized cells vs. those who value the needs of the suffering now. Bumper sticker slogans are lobbed across the ideological battlefield like hand grenades.
Part of the problem is the changing status of the science. New avenues of research, for example, have touted the use of other types of stem cells, such as stem cells from umbilical cord blood. These promising advances, however, at this stage do not diminish the potential utility of the embryonic stem cell. With all the hope other sources of stem cells bring, we cannot ignore the source that is currently the most promising.
The time has come for us to discard the verbal barrage, to lighten up on the politics, and walk together through the complex and multifaceted issue of biotechnology in general and stem cell research in particular. The timing and issues are so vital that we have no choice but to carve out a broad-based and morally defensible public stance on what it means to use life to give life. In what likely will be one of the most significant medical leaps in history, and likely also result in an unprecedented economic boon, the time to talk, and to act, is now. All parties in both camps must ease the posturing and take steps to embark on the difficult journey of respectful dialogue, informed discussion, and, ultimately, societal consensus.
A STARTING POINT could be for each side to begin by asking hard questions of their own position. Both the advocates and opponents of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research could diffuse some of the destructive energy of the debate by being willing to address some issues that trip up opponents.
To advocates of stem cell research: A common assertion is that there is a large reservoir of stem cells just waiting to be discarded by fertility clinics anyway, so why not use them for research? The argument against this sweeping claim is rooted in the fact that the "embryo industry" is unregulated and virtually unchecked. The fear is that wholesale acceptance of embryonic research without carefully deliberated moral boundaries to safeguard the embryos will create a society where "embryo factories" become an acceptable practice. This is one specific issue that must be debated and addressed.
To opponents of stem cell research: The chief argument against any use of embryos for research, regardless of how noble the cause, is that it means we do not "value life." This conviction rings hollow, however, because the fact remains that many thousands of these embryos are discarded when they no longer contribute to the donors' desires. And the fight for life must be a consistent and holistic fight for everyone who is alone, oppressed, or discarded, whether they are a viable fetus or a neglected 6-year-old—to say nothing of the thousands of lives whose only foreseeable hope is stem cell research.
To "defend the afflicted," as Psalm 72 puts it, we need not abandon the children. With respectful and deliberate dialogue, we can move toward developing strict safeguards that ensure that viable embryos are treated with respect as living beings and still engage in aggressive research that can potentially save countless lives.
The greatest danger we face is that this issue will become moot in a few years because the technology will find its way into the marketplace regardless of any ethical or moral discussion, or we will become so desperate for solutions to our suffering that the ethics will not matter. If we wait, we lose. We really have no choice.
Chap Clark is professor of youth, family, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers.