Fine young cannibals

“Today, with the executive order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.” — President Barack Obama

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should… The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here, uh… staggers me.” — Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (the movie), 1993

Stem_cells_diagramYes, we can. That was the mantra of the Obama candidacy, and so far, the guiding principle of his young administration. Yes we can cut the brake lines and burn rubber in a science muscle car unrestrained by moral caution, humility or photo radar. What could go wrong?

Yes we can farm human embryos for human adult spare parts. Yes we can. Yes we can. And yes, we will.

But should we? Despite the President’s assurances that embryonic experimentation is good for America, there are plenty of doubters, and not just on the right. Republican Senator Sam Brownback framed the moral question well in a recent press release.

“The Administration’s policy change does not answer the central question: Do human embryos, which are clearly alive, constitute a life or mere property? If an embryo is a life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes.” — Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kansas

Science, cheered on by the President and our medical-industrial complex, would rather not consider Brownback’s inconvenient question. If embryos are not mere property, science, and society, might just have to exercise self-restraint. “No we shouldn’t” sounds like something our parents might have said. Worse, it’s what the Bush administration said!

President Obama is being dishonest, or at least misleading, to claim that he is making possible “promising embryonic stem cell research.” Sen. Brownback has the facts on his side when he points out that “After a decade of private and public research around the world, embryonic stem cell research… has yet to yield any clinical trials or any real-world successes…”

In fact, embryonic stem cells have proven far worse than ineffective — they can be dangerous.

Adult stem cell research derives its genetic material from ordinary adult cells. It has already yielded successful treatments for a number of diseases including leukemia. Adult stem cells are less risky because the body doesn’t reject them (they are harvested from the very patient they are used in) and they are not likely to spawn tumors, a serious problem so far in animal experimentation with embryonic cells.

Like the masses chanting “Yes we can,” embryonic cells want to grow without limits. Forcing them to grow helpfully, not fatally, has proved impossible to date.

In late 2007, two independent research teams created Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, a way to coax ordinary, adult stem cells to revert back to something like an embryonic cell. This research calls into question the very need for experimentation on human embryos at all.

Which makes me wonder if President Obama’s policy change is driven more by science or politics?

But these are arguments about efficiency, not moral principle. Yes, adult stem cells are effective. They have produced new treatments and the promise of more. Their use is not clouded by difficult moral dilemmas.

Embryonic stem cells have thus far yielded nothing but medical dead ends. But even if that were not true, even if human embryos held the key to eternal life, destroying them for the sake of the living is still the moral equivalent of cannibalism, a practice long ago repudiated by every civilized society. That we would consider such a thing today… uh, staggers me.

Yes, we can. No, we shouldn’t.

Illustration credit: Wikipedia

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Nicely written, without any riot inducing, holier-than-thou hyperbole. Thank you.

  2. says

    There are some serious problems with how this debate is working itself out in society.

    There is no (or very little) outcry about embryos being created and used willy-nilly for fertility treatments, etc. By the definition, what they do involves destruction of human embryos at some point, as many more are created in the process than are actually implanted and given a chance to develop fully.

    As, by definition of people who oppose embryonic stem cell research, fertility clinics are engaging in embryonic genocide, where is the outrage? Where are protests outside of them? Where’s the legisation to shut them down? Where’s the (uncalled for and invalid) violence against it’s practitioners?

    That’s a double standard vs abortion. This debate won’t be taken seriously until rhetoric has caught up with reality, as until then embryo’s are being treated as some sort of second class citizen.

  3. says

    Thanks for your good comments, Zack. Though it doesn’t make mainstream headlines, among Christian ethicists there has actually been a great deal of concern and discussion over the years about the ethical problems surrounding IVF. See my own post IVF and the ethical dilemmas of infertility for just one example.

  4. Obama wasn’t kidding about bringing change. Warren Buffet said he’s never seen so much fear. I don’t know if he meant in the country generally, or in the financial markets.

    It’s time to get grounded, if one isn’t already.

  5. Brownback is a Republican, is he not? You have him quoted as a Democrat. The senator from Kansas is actually one of the most right-leaning members.

    It’s clear Obama’s decision has everything to do with politics. It’s fulfilling a campaign promise to his base.

    Note that he also rescinded an executive order that provided funding for the other stem cell researchers.

  6. says

    Wow, Tom, you are exactly right!! Sen. Brownback is a Republican, but as I wrote I was confusing him with another, Democratic senator. What a brain failure! Thanks for the correction. I’ve updated this post to make it clear that Brownback hasn’t changed parties.

Comment Policy:  All comments are subject to moderation. Your words are your own, but AnotherThink is mine, so I reserve the right to censor language that is uncouth or derogatory. No anonymous comments will be published, but if you include your real name and email address (kept private), you can say pretty much whatever is on your mind. I look forward to hearing from you.

Leave a comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.