Stem cells, gut feelings

Aug 15, 2001 at 12:00 am

This whole thing about stem cell research has got me a little bothered, but not for the reasons that some might think. President Bush’s recent decision to allow limited research on stem cell embryos may potentially open the door to more expanded research down the road, but that doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me is that so many folks who call themselves “pro-life” continue to persist in their belief that one form of human life is more valuable than another.

More specifically, it seems that a fair number of these folks — the same ones who argue so strongly against abortion, and for essentially the same reasons that they are opposed to stem cell research — view the lives of the unborn as considerably more important than the lives of those of us who are already here. I realize this is hardly the way they view their position, and I also realize that this interpretation is likely to tick them off considerably; all I can say is that I’m not saying any of this just to tick anybody off. Wouldn’t be worth my time to write, and it wouldn’t be worth your time to read.

So before I go any further, maybe I should offer a basic explanation for why I believe what I do. To begin with, I think it’s safe to say that no sane person would argue that life is unimportant, so from where I sit the term “pro-life” in and of itself is ridiculous. Anybody who isn’t dead is pro-life. I suspect many of the men on death row are some of the most pro-life people you’d ever want to meet. I think the terms “pro-abortion” and “anti-abortion” are considerably more accurate.

Secondly, I think there’s more to life than just being born, sleeping and eating: Quality of life ought to matter. To my knowledge, the anti-abortion troops spend considerably more time figuring out ways to make sure that all pregnant women give birth (whether they want to or not) than they do figuring out how to make sure that those children are adequately taken care of once they arrive in the world. All that seems to matter is birth; proper care afterward is apparently optional. While I don’t personally approve of anyone’s decision to terminate a pregnancy just because having a kid might get in the way (not that this is the primary reason why most women have abortions), choosing to have an abortion could also be a much more humane course of action than the alternative. It’s better than having a child who isn’t wanted and who may not have a decent chance of being adopted into a good home.

Third, I’m one of those who happens to believe that what is created at the moment of conception cannot be considered a life. I’m hardly a scientist so I can’t offer any long, complicated scientific justification. After all I’ve read, all I really have to go on is my gut, and deep down I just can’t believe that anything which cannot sustain itself on its own out here in the world — such as an embryo — can be considered alive in the same sense that you can be considered alive.

It’s true that conception is where we all started, and this makes the issue more complicated and sticky, but in the end I still don’t see it.

Do you eat eggs? There’s a reason why the eggs that we eat come fresh from the chicken and aren’t allowed to develop to the stage where you can actually see the heart beating inside. There’s also a reason why you never see Tasty Little Unborn Chickens listed on any restaurant menu, and it’s not just because western omelet sounds more appetizing. It’s because that egg isn’t considered a chicken yet.

With stem cell research, it seems fairly obvious that the potential benefits to those of us who have spent time outside of the womb are considerable. Politics, fear of technology and Christian religious fundamentalism seem to be the primary roadblocks to allowing this research to go forward at more than a snail’s pace. That’s not necessarily all bad. The potential for abuse of such mind-bending technology is roughly equivalent to its potential for good, so considerable caution is warranted. The last thing we need is to go down the slippery slope from stem cell research to the cloning and scientific harvesting of human beings whose only purpose is to provide spare parts for others.

Also, while I might disagree with some folks’ religious views, I don’t consider it fair to question their right to believe in or fight for those views. I’m convinced the anti-abortion/anti-stem cell research crowd is staunchly convinced that it’s a horrific mistake for humanity to go down the road where stem cell research is leading. Most of them — excluding the crazies — are only making all that noise because they believe they’re doing what’s right.

However much I appreciate that, I’m equally convinced that it would be a terrible mistake if we shut ourselves off from a controversial form of research that has the potential to save lives and improve the quality of life for millions of people because such research could harm an embryo that has yet to even vaguely resemble human form. As for those who would compare the benefits of stem cell research to the benefits achieved by Nazi doctors who experimented on Jews during the Holocaust, I can only point out that those victims were hardly embryos. There is a huge difference between a human being who has been tortured beyond belief and an embryo that has not even developed into enough of a shape to be recognized as a human being.

Stem cell research is a thorny, and in many ways scary issue. I understand why it makes many people afraid. But what I understand even better is that life is often hard and cruel. If stem cell research can help a significant number of people live — and improve their quality of life — then I don’t see how I could be against it.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]