On Life and Stem Cells
The Editors


We are told in the Gospels that Christ, one Sabbath day, entered the synagogue to find a man with a shriveled hand. Some onlookers wondered what Christ would do, for it was unlawful to do work on the Sabbath. Reading their hearts, he asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” Answering his own question, Christ said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” When he did, it had been completely healed.

Christ meant his message to be painfully clear: when faced with morally difficult questions, our answer should always be the same: to do good, not evil, and to save life, not kill. We as Christians, and indeed, we as thoughtful people, should always endeavor to keep Christ’s principle foremost in our minds when faced with problematic situations. But would that our decisions were always so simple as Christ’s in the synagogue: far too often, this world jumbles together the good and the evil, the saving and the killing, until all our best intentions seem muddied and confused.

Such unfortunately is the case with stem-cell research, and we are in the middle of it here at Harvard, whether we like it or not. This past April, the University with great fanfare unveiled the new Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which has since then already become a center for cutting edge stem-cell research in this country. Only a few weeks ago, Prof. Douglas Melton, who is co-director of the Institute, requested permission to clone human embryos for research purposes. It is not certain that the university’s ethical review board will approve Prof. Melton’s request, but should they do so, Harvard will be the first institution in the country to clone human beings. Whatever this means, we are in the thick of it now, and with stem-cell researchers around the nation determined to move forward with their work, the issue will not go away anytime soon.

What does it mean that we are on the cusp of cloning human embryos for biomedical research? For that matter, should we be troubled that already Harvard has created seventeen new stem-cell lines, which required the destruction of numerous human embryos? It is not immediately clear what these developments mean, and reasonable people are by no means agreed that we should regard them as troublesome. Quite the contrary, many on this campus are heralding these developments as great victories for science and for humanity, signaling as they do the possibility of an exciting new era of regenerative medicine. For them, the hope that the lame might walk and the blind might see is cause for great celebration, and opposition to this great new discovery is simply incomprehensible.

Much of the debate on campus has taken this tone, pitting the forces of hope, science, and progress against the legions of fear, religious dogmatism, and conservatism. But surely, this issue is not quite so simple as that. Science, we should always remember, is not an unqualified good. It was not all that long ago that some scientists thought themselves free to conduct experiments (ranging from the demeaning to the horrific) on minorities in the name of the “greater good.” The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, for example, remains a horrible blight on this country: hundreds of black sharecroppers were allowed to die (some as recently as 1972) so that government researchers could observe the effects of the disease when untreated by modern medicine. We would do well to keep in mind, as science moves forward, that progress is not always progress in the right direction. If science is to advance, it must do so within an agreed-upon moral framework.

Knowing this is supremely important when considering the pros and cons of stem-cell research, for the tremendous promise that the technique holds makes careful deliberation difficult. Stem cells are unique in that they possess the potential to grow into a variety of other types of cells, and scientists believe it may be possible to use them to develop new cells that may then be used to replace diseased human tissues. If these scientists are correct, stem cells may usher in a new age of regenerative medicine, dramatically reducing the impact of disease and raising life expectancies. Given these prospects, the excitement about stem cells should come as no surprise.

But of course, if that were all there was to the debate, there would be no controversy. Unfortunately, the issue is much thornier than that. Adult stem cell research is universally regarded as morally acceptable, but embryonic stem cell research is much more problematic. The process of obtaining embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of human embryos; there is no way around it. These embryos may either be “spares” from IVF clinics, or human clones made specially for the purpose in laboratories. The question, then, becomes: is it morally permissible to destroy human embryos for research purposes? Is it ever morally permissible to conduct research that depends upon the exploitation and destruction of nascent human life? On the other hand, given the terrible suffering this research may alleviate, can we morally decide to stand in the way of something with such great promise?

It all comes down, in the end, to the moral status of the embryo. If the human embryo possesses a moral standing equal to all other human beings, all such research is categorically immoral. No matter what benefits the research might confer, it is wrong to exploit and destroy one class of human beings for the good of another. If the human embryo possesses some sort of intermediate moral status, however, a wide range of policy positions is possible. And if the human embryo possesses no significant moral status at all, then embryonic stem cell research is a nearly unqualified good. A thoughtful response to this question means taking each of these positions seriously.

There are many who hold that human embryos possess no special moral status, and should be regarded as little more than microscopic clumps of cells. Their argument depends on a definition of human personhood which regards biological development as meaningful with respect to personhood. Although we regard newborn infants and the elderly as possessing equal claims to personhood, regardless of their great developmental differences, these commentators find certain points of human development to be crucially meaningful boundaries. Some locate the crucial boundary at the development of recognizably human features; some at the capacity to feel pain; and some at the development of the “primitive streak,” a cellular formation which occurs at the 14-day mark. While these commentators disagree on the precise moment at which the fetus should be accorded full human status, they all agree that before that point, the embryo should be regarded as no more than an clump of cells.

Others, like Harvard professor Michael Sandel, disagree with this analysis. While Prof. Sandel would agree that personhood can be defined with respect to human development, he would disagree that human embryos before that point possess no moral status whatsoever. Instead, these commentators argue that this position undervalues nascent human life, which they say possesses an intermediate yet significant moral status. This position takes seriously the humanness of the embryo, recognizing that it represents a human life which has not yet developed many features that are characteristic of full personhood. While this position emphasizes the difficulty of drawing definitive lines, oftentimes its adherents will point to the 14-day “primitive streak” as a significant developmental marker. As this position does not define embryos in their earliest stages as fully in possession of personhood, it allows for the possibility of embryonic stem-cell research. Prof. Sandel is in favor of such research, although he cautions that a proper respect for nascent human life requires careful regulation. Others who hold this position argue that a proper respect for nascent human life is not consistent with the systematic exploitation and destruction of such, no matter how carefully regulated.

A third class of commentators, including Princeton professor Robert George, asserts that it is impossible to define human personhood with respect to form or function, arguing instead that personhood must be defined with respect to what kind of entity we are. Prof. George points out that “a human embryo is a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural development… the embryonic, fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages are stages in the development of a determinate and enduring entity—a human being—which comes into existence as a single cell organism and develops, if all goes well, into adulthood many years later.” These commentators emphasize that human embryos possess the genetic blueprint for self-directed growth and, if allowed to develop naturally, will without fail become adult human persons. This position holds that it is impossible to define personhood with respect to developed characteristics since those characteristics are possessed in widely varying degrees. For example, they would say, it is inadequate to define personhood with respect to mental function, since that would make the intelligent more human than the less intelligent, and especially more human than the mentally handicapped. The same argument, then, applies to the ability to feel pain (for not all people can), the possession of recognizably human features (for some are disfigured), and other such characteristics. Precisely because, then, it is impossible to draw significant moral boundaries anywhere else, we must draw the line at conception. This position, obviously, precludes the possibility of embryonic stem-cell research.

Simply reviewing these positions, unfortunately, does not give us a definitive answer. Indeed, we on the editorial board of the Ichthus thought it fitting to review them all because we ourselves are of several minds. Some of us, as Christians, believe on religious grounds that life begins at conception, settling definitively the debate. Others of us are not so sure, noting that the Bible is not a science textbook and so does not necessarily provide moral clarity on this issue. Religion aside, all of us agree that the arguments heretofore presented possess great persuasive power and deserve our careful consideration. These questions, unfortunately, have no easy answers, and reasonable people can and do disagree about the best way forward. Knowing this, however, we do agree that the lack of serious debate about stem-cell research here at Harvard is disturbing. While reasonable people disagree about the merits of such research, the issue is undebatably debatable, and we feel that it is simply unacceptable to allow the destruction and cloning of human embryos on this campus to go forward without such debate. As Christians, we set before us Christ’s command to do good, not evil, and to save life, not kill. Our strongly held belief in the sanctity of all human life drives us to seek a moral solution to this dilemma, holding ever before us our twin duties, both to protect all human life and to love and care for all who are living. It is our sincere hope, and indeed our fervent prayer, that thoughtful people on this campus will join together with us in earnestly seeking the moral path forward.