- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The question of whether humanembryos should be used for stem-cell research presents Americans with a new phase of an old struggle over equality, says Wesley J. Smith.

“The debate over embryonic stem-cell research is a debate over whether it is important that a life is human,” says Mr. Smith, author of the recently released “Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World.” “All of these issues that we are dealing with get into the very essential question that I think faces us in the 21st century: Does life have intrinsic value simply and merely because it is a human life?”

The answer to that question, says Mr. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, ultimately will decide whether we look at humans as resources or as beings who have value.

To reach a consensus about embryonic stem-cell research, the public must be able to understand the debate, says David Prentice, scientist and senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council.

“Unfortunately, some people tend to make [the issue] too complex, so the public tends to just throw up their hands and think it’s too difficult to understand the science,” Mr. Prentice says. “We just need to make sure people understand these terms and what they really mean.”

Mr. Smith explained that stem cells are simply cells that have not developed for any specific function, such as the creation of skin, muscle or bone tissue. These cells can be harvested either from embryos or from adults.

To obtain stem cells from an embryo, the embryo must be destroyed. Gathering such cells from adults is harmless, he said.

Americans hear little about adult stem-cell research, Mr. Smith says, despite the great progress it has made in helping patients with diseases such as Parkinson’s. Instead, he says, Americans are told about the great potential for embryonic stem-cell research, although scientific hopes are nowhere near being realized.

“We hear an awful lot about embryonic stem cells. We are told by the scientific community that they offer the best hope,” the Discovery Institute fellow says. “Well, that is not what the published science is showing. A lot of what you hear from the scientific community is speculation and hope. It isn’t based on published science.”

Instead, he said, published science shows that in lab tests embryonic stem cells result in two problems: tumors and tissue rejection.

Tumors appeared in mice that were injected with only 1 percent of the normal dose of embryonic stem cells. The problem, Mr. Prentice says, is that the embryonic stem cells don’t stop growing.

Tissue rejection can result when the stem cells come from a foreign source. The problem can be prevented with adult stem cells, because they can be taken from the recipient’s own body.

Beyond the rejection issue is an ethics question of human value, even where it is generally agreed that life begins at conception. Mr. Smith says the debate has moved from what point a human is created to the basis for human value.

One scientific attempt at resolving that debate, Mr. Smith says, is the “personhood theory,” which states: “If one has sufficient cognitive capacity, even if one is not human, then you are a ‘person.’ If one has insufficient cognitive capacity to be deemed to have sufficient value, then you are a nonperson.” Under this theory, he says, “nonpersons” would include newborns, the mentally unstable, and those afflicted with Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases.

One example of personhood theory in action is the case of Terry Schiavo, the comatose Florida woman whose husband has fought in court to remove her feeding tube and let her die, Mr. Smith says.

“The people who decide [who is a nonperson] never choose themselves as having lesser value,” Mr. Smith says, “but beyond that, when we decide that those who we denigrate as having lesser value, for whatever criteria we wish to establish … it justifies killing, it justifies exploitation, and it justifies oppression.”

In the long run, Mr. Smith and Mr. Prentice say, embryonic stem-cell research is not about religion, feminism or even the right of a human embryo to live. It is about the value of all humans, young and old, healthy and ill.

“We have to think about what that does to our perception, not only of unborn life but also of each other, of what it means to be human,” Mr. Smith says. “If we can start creating human lives only to destroy them, then what have we done to ourselves, and what have we done to our own sense of the importance of the equality and sanctity of human life?”

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