Stem-cell research: Between potentiality and actuality

Elton Wong

Recently, scientists have used human stem cells to try and treat monkeys afflicted with a neural damage similar to that caused by Lou Gehrig’s disease. In humans, this disease causes the destruction of healthy nerve tissue, and invariably causes a slow, painful death. There is no known cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is hoped, however, that these stem cells, once properly implanted, will be able to develop into healthy neurons that compensate for the damaging effect of the illness. Furthermore, it is hoped that stem cells will someday be able to treat diseases as diverse as Parkinson’s and diabetes. Stem cells are taken from human embryos in very early stages of development, when the embryos are no larger than the period at the end of a sentence. The reason stem cells are so interesting is that they are undifferentiated: Unlike liver, muscle or any other mature cell, stem cells can grow and become any other kind of cell, given proper stimuli. Early results from the monkey experiments are promising, but much more research is needed before stem-cell therapy becomes possible in humans. Currently, such research is moving slowly because Congress has banned the use of federal funds for research that uses these cells. This ban arises from anti-abortion sentiments: taking stem cells from the embryo destroys the embryo. The ban holds even though scientists no longer have to take stem cells from embryos; scientists already possess cultures of stem cells taken from embryos in the past. Scientists and physicians are now keeping an eye on the Bush administration, to see how it will deal with these issues. Most opposition to stem-cell research comes from the anti-abortion movement. Even the Pope has condemned such research, saying that embryos are humans and that destroying them even for research that could save countless lives is wrong. So the question becomes this: Are embryos people? If they are, then stem-cell research should obviously stop because killing people in the name of research is wrong. If embryos are not people, then the ban on stem-cell research is irrational because such research could benefit people a great deal. Thus, the controversy over stem-cell research has plunged all participants into deep ethical and metaphysical waters. Most opposition to stem-cell research is religious (read: Christian) in nature. When Christians classify the embryo as full-fledged person, it conveniently solves an important theological problem: that of the soul. Christian theology holds that humans are privileged over all other organisms in that they have a soul that will live forever. Thus, the Christian desperately needs to set a point at which the “soul” is “given” to the human organism. The problem is that there is no point in human development that obviously corresponds to the “soul-receiving” event. From the sex cells to birth, there is a smooth progression from a single cell to a complex, thinking, feeling person. I imagine that for the Christian, acknowledging the ambiguity of “humanness” is somehow theologically unsatisfying. Therefore, the anti-stem-cell activists have borrowed a maneuver from their cousins, the creationists and the flat-earthers: flatly reject all scientific information and arbitrarily define something simple as the truth. That way, one doesn’t have to deal with uncertainty nor ambiguity. The pattern is pretty obvious: evolution is a lie, the earth is flat, the value of pi is exactly three and a ball of cells the size of a grain of salt is a person. So what exactly is an embryo? In the stages of development that we’re talking about here, an embryo is just a ball of undifferentiated cells, not even as complex as an amoebae from a pond. If an amoebae is not a person, then why is an embryo? “Well,” anti-stem-cell activists reply, “the embryo may be just a ball of cells, but it has the full human genetic code, and has the potential to become a person. Therefore, it is a person. Plus, it has to have a soul too or our theology gets messed up really quick.” First of all, potentiality is not the same as actuality. An embryo has the potential to become a person, true, but any sperm and any egg cell have that same potential. If it’s morally wrong to let an embryo die, then why isn’t menstruation similarly immoral? Menstruation kills an egg that had the potential to become a person. An embryo can develop into a person given the right nutrients, hormones and environment, but an egg can develop in exactly the same way given nutrients, hormones and sperm. There is no real difference between an unfertilized egg and an early embryo, except that the embryo has a full set of human genes. Furthermore, only 30 percent of fertilized eggs make it to birth in humans under normal conditions. The other 70 percent are aborted naturally, mostly due to chromosomal abnormalities on the part of the embryo. Most of the time, the woman is not even aware she is pregnant. If the embryo is defined in terms of potentiality, it is a dubious potentiality at best. As for the gene question, every day, my intestines slough off thousands of cells, all of which contain the full set of human genes. Is it a tragedy when these cells exit my body and die? Of course not. They’re just intestinal cells, not people. The point of all this is that an embryo is not a person. What makes us human is that we can think, feel, communicate and have relationships with each other. A jellyfish is closer to being a human than an undifferentiated mass of cells. Therefore, there is no reason to ban research that uses cells that were originally taken from embryos. Such research has the potential to improve human life immeasurably. We ought not let flimsy theological concerns prevent this from happening. Elton Wong is a senior in genetics and philosophy from Ames.