In my opinion, the current debate over embryonic stem cell research has focused too much on the expected benefits of the research, and not enough on the moral implications for early human life. By embryonic stem cell research, I mean research involving stem cells that are obtained by killing human embryos, however those embryos were created or obtained.
Embryonic stem cell research is based on a parallel ethical logic to abortion: that the moral value of early human life is contingent upon the will of those responsible for it. In the case of abortion, the justification for withholding full moral regard for the early human life is based on the compelling concerns of the woman whose body houses that life; in the case of embryonic stem cell research, it is based on the compelling concerns of the sick and afflicted of society. Yet in either case the value of the early human lives is dismissed in favor of the choices of those who are responsible for them.
It is true that there are many embryos now in existence that may never be allowed the opportunity to grow and develop. This is a moral dilemma. But would we justify killing a patient earlier in order to learn something, however great the knowledge might be, just because that patient would eventually die anyway? This is inconsistent with the ethics of medicine through the centuries, as well as the understanding that mankind is created in the image of God.
As a physician, I am well aware of the suffering and need for relief of patients with cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and other diseases. I believe that it is likely that research involving stem cells from umbilical cord blood or from adult tissue, research that does not involve the destruction of embryos, could achieve results similar to research involving embryonic stem cells. But even if it turned out embryonic stem cell research was the only way to achieve relief for these patients, an unlikely event, I do not think that this would justify killing early human life.
The current debacle of scientific fraud involving a fabrication of human cloning by somatic nuclear transfer in Korea, with the hype and celebrity status of Dr. Hwang Woo-suk and his team that preceded the fraud, is one illustration of the distortions that have occurred in this field among scientists and the general public. See
Of course, most scientists working in this area are not guilty of fraud. The most careful and honest ones say that any benefit from embryonic stem cell research is many years, if not decades in the future, and that it is possible that the same benefits could be achieved through other means. Yet they also argue for pursuing the avenue of embryonic stem cell research because of their thirst for knowledge, the desire to maximize the possible benefits of all avenues of research, and the justification that we need not respect the life of these individual human embryos or consider them as human organisms, but rather we can use them as biologic building material, allowing their lives to be taken to benefit the lives of others.
In my judgment, these justifications are not sufficient. To promote embryonic stem cell research is to justify the killing of individual human embryos. Even for a most worthy cause this is morally unacceptable. If the value and purpose of early human life are made dependent upon the subjective judgment of scientists, however noble their aims, humanity is headed for grave moral difficulties.