- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2010

Culture challenge of the week: Slippery medical ethics

The headlines rightly call the medical research “outrageous and abhorrent,” a “horror” perpetrated on vulnerable people. U.S. government experiments in the 1940s intentionally and secretly infected Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers and the mentally ill with syphilis.

It was a wrongheaded attempt to advance medical knowledge for the benefit of many but at great cost to a few. The purpose, in theory, was good: to test the effectiveness of a then-new drug, penicillin. So much vital information was at stake, for the good of so many. The pain and human suffering these experiments sought to alleviate was real — and devastating. Left untreated, syphilis causes vision and hearing loss, paralysis, mental disorders and even death.

So, why experiment on Guatemalan “patients?” Because they were far removed from American consciousness and laws. They were voiceless, vulnerable and unprotected.

Kind of like human embryos are now.

The phrase “embryonic stem cell research” puts a scientist’s gloss on what really happens: Our smallest humans, embryos, become subjects for experimentation. And when they’ve served their purpose, they’re done for. Living beings, now dead.

The rationale for embryonic stem cell research follows the same pattern present in the Guatemalan “horrors.” The purpose is good, at least on the surface: Take stem cells and find out how to make medical miracles happen. So much vital information is at stake, for the good of so many.

And, as it was for syphilis, the pain and human suffering the research hopes to alleviate are real — and devastating. But destroying embryos can’t be the answer.

Like the Guatemalan patients of the 1940s, embryos are voiceless, vulnerable and unprotected. They live, “suspended” in storage, out of sight, too young to make the case for their own dignity and right to life.

Medical “progress,” for the benefit of many but at great cost to a few, must go on.

At least that’s how National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins reacted to a new method of creating stem cells. Medical researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute published breakthrough findings last week on a technique that successfully creates stem cells from skin cells, with far fewer risks than any previous method.

It’s a game-changer, eliminating the “need” to continue embryo-killing research. But not so at NIH (coincidentally, the same government agency that underwrote the evil in Guatemala). While the new methods “provide a substantial advance,” Mr. Collins said, they “must continue to be conducted side by side with human embryonic cell research.”

How to save your family by insisting on the dignity of all life

Educate your children about the beauty of all life, from beginning to end. Show your children the amazing sonogram images of pre-born children and teach them that, from conception, all the littlest embryo needs is time and a nurturing womb in order to be delivered nine months later as a newborn.

Keep them off the slippery slope that grants rights to the pre-born at one stage (say, six months) while denying it at another (like six weeks). The right to life rests on human dignity, not size or growth stage.

Know the facts about embryonic stem cell research. The Bioethics Defense Fund and Do No Harm are good resources. The media profile hard cases and focus mainly on the sufferings of those with degenerative diseases. But destroying the embryo’s life can’t pivot on the compassion we feel for others.

Pray for your own medical professionals to respect all life, including the tiniest. And encourage your own children to enter those professions — we need strong, ethical leaders in medicine who will indeed “do no harm.”

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at [email protected]

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