A win for science — and human dignity


As we move into the retrospective season on 2007, there will be lists aplenty about the major stories of the past year.

Herewith let me nominate my candidate, a good news story that may well reconfigure major issues on the public agenda for years to come. It’s a health story, a science story, a morality story and a human dignity story: the stem cell breakthrough reported last month in research papers by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and Dr. James Thomson.

For years, there have been high expectations for future therapies resulting from the use of embryonic stem cells, which, being “pluripotent,” can be transformed into virtually any kind of body tissue. The insuperable ethical problem is that harvesting such cells requires the destruction of the embryo — life must be taken so that life might (potentially) be saved. The good news last month — described on these pages by Charles Krauthammer three weeks ago — was that pluripotent stem cells could be obtained from human skin cells (fibroblasts). The technique involves introducing four genes into the skin cells, which are thereby “reprogrammed” to mimic embryonic stem cells.

The news has already had positive effects in terms of avoiding the needless creation and destruction of embryos for research purposes. The researcher who gave us Dolly, the cloned sheep, Dr. Ian Wilmut, has since decided not to pursue human cloning through the use of pluripotent stem cells from embryos — even though he has a British licence to do so. He will now focus on reprogramming as the superior scientific technique.

There does need to be some caution. Embryonic stem cells, to date, have not produced a single therapeutic cure — not one. There has been much propaganda on this issue, often led by celebrities such as Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox, pretending that embryonic stem cell therapies were just around the corner. That’s not the case. And the fact that pluripotent stem cells can be got elsewhere does not mean that they will be any more useful for medical therapies than the embryonic stem cells they mimic.

Good ethics and good medicine can go hand in hand, saving us from the awful position of having to compromise our souls to save our bodies.

Yet the news is already enormously significant in that it brings clarity to related moral issues. The deliberate confusion and obfuscation over human cloning should now cease. To get over the public’s general revulsion to cloning, advocates introduced the specious distinction between “therapeutic cloning” and “reproductive cloning.” What is proposed to be done in both cases is exactly the same — to create a clone; “therapeutic” simply means it is destroyed for its stem cells, while “reproductive” means that it is allowed to develop, à la Dolly. If there is no need of embryos as a source for pluripotent cells, then there is no need for “therapeutic” cloning. The brave new world of cloning should be held at bay — at least for a little while longer.

Cloning still remains a potential future source of embryos. Because there is an elementary moral objection to creating embryos solely to be destroyed in the course of research, some scientists have turned to “surplus embryos,” left over after fertility treatments. The argument is that their destruction for research is better than letting them remain frozen or be otherwise discarded.

That argument has given cover to the scandalous practice of creating “surplus” embryos in the first place. Fertility treatments that create such embryos are deliberately bringing life into being that is destined to languish or be destroyed. There is no moral justification for that, but the false hopes raised by embryonic stem cell research allowed some to claim that perhaps the embryos would not go to waste after all, which is a chilling way to speak about human life. Already, some European countries are moving in the direction of prohibiting the creation of surplus embryos. That trend should be encouraged by this year’s breakthrough.

On a more fundamental level, the good news is that the false opposition between science and ethics has been exposed as just that — false — in this case, by the latest research. Good ethics and good medicine can go hand in hand, saving us from the awful position of having to compromise our souls to save our bodies.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "A win for science — and human dignity." National Post, (Canada) December 20, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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