May 21, 2024

Health, Ethics, and Stem Cell Research

Everyone wants to live longer, healthier lives, don’t they? Actually, no, most Americans don’t care enough about their quality of life to take the steps needed to maintain and improve their physical well-being. Call it anecdotal evidence if you want to but this claim seems self-evident: people say they care about their own bodies but they do not.

If they did they would:

  • Get more sleep
  • Follow an regular exercise plan
  • Have regular medical checkups
  • Deliberately lessen stress

And they wouldn’t:

  • Drink excessively
  • Smoke
  • Take habit forming drugs
  • Overeat

Americans are known for making bad eating choices. They are also becoming known for being an obese people because of the bad food they consume in too-large quantities and because of their consistent lack of exercise. These are also self-evident facts. Look around. Take it in.

American’s average life expectancy is almost 78 years, far better than most countries around the world. Is it because of their astute dietary insights and demanding exercise regimens? Hardly. It’s a result of the vast medical expenditures that we’re making, expenditures that cannot be sustained over time, expenditures that are bankrupting MediCare and causing insurance premiums to rise astronomically.

The simple fact is that human bodies wear out and the more abuse they are subjected to the faster they deteriorate. Whose fault is it then when an overweight smoker and heavy drinker who has never exercised with anything heavier than a 12 ounce can of Blatz is diagnosed with heart disease or lung cancer? And who should bear the burden of the associated costs?

Furthermore, what steps should be taken to correct the medical problems in his life? Current medical science cannot save this man. For all intents and purposes he’s the walking dead. Are we obligated to save him? At what expense and whose? Thinking on a long-term basis, what types of research are we bound to undertake for the sake of those who fail to care for themselves? Which sorts of experiments are needed and which, if any, should be off-limits?

Today’s debates center around embryonic stem cell research because of the ethical issues involved and the potential for “life-saving” treatments that might be derived from experiments with human embryos.

The thing is that we’re all dying. No life is every saved in any hospital. Life is prolonged, yes, but never saved permanently. To be clear, we’re talking about quantities of time, that’s all.

How these stem cells work and how they might be used to cure diseases and other health problems is not well-understood. We’re at the level of Pasteur, peering into primitive lenses and trying to discern the work of an infinitely more advanced maker. Perhaps we can achieve an understanding of these cells’ function and put them to use. Perhaps not.

The larger question is: Would something be lost in the attempt? What is the value of a human embryo? Is there any?

Yes. With its potential to create a human life, an embryo is inherently worth an indeteriminate value. In 100 years the value of this potential life could be said to be known with some accuracy; however, in the moment nothing is certain. What might, if that embryo is brought to fruition, take residence in the resulting body? Einstein, Hitler, or another Joe Sixpack – only God knows.

As much as I am a proponent of scientific advancement, I cannot advocate the creation of human embryos for the purpose of experimental research. The destruction of even the potential for human life seems somehow fraught with peril. In this I think President Bush is correct – we should not allow this to happen in America as an accepted scientific practice.

The primary opposing argument is that some other, less scrupulous country will simply perform the research in their own labs using their own, perhaps less controlled, techniques. And?

Happily a compromise may be in the offing. Wake Forest University scientists have reported a new discovery indicating that considerable progress can be made without the destruction of human embryos by using amniotic fluid instead. According to the Washington Post:

A type of cell that floats freely in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women has been found to have many of the same traits as embryonic stem cells, including an ability to grow into brain, muscle and other tissues that could be used to treat a variety of diseases, scientists reported yesterday. [ed: January 8th, 2007]

More information can be found here.

This new discovery indicates to me that more study is needed in regards to the ethics of medicine in general and stem cell research in particular. While it is sometimes wrong to wait and obtain a more complete understanding of the facts before taking action, nothing in the field of medical research demands undo haste.

After all, there’s one thing that’s certain about life – no one gets out of it alive.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

View all posts by marc →