Stem cell research represents life, not death

Andrew Fingerett

Reason finally trumped ideology as President Barack Obama lifted many of the arcane and politically extreme executive limitations on embryonic stem-cell research. The move comes in the face of growing support for the research among Americans, with only 32 percent of the population believing it is more important to protect the embryos than conduct research, according to a 2006 Pew Research Center poll.

While the move won’t produce any immediate results, its symbolic meaning is significant in that it signals a drastic shift in policy, one that seeks to construct a wall of separation between scientific findings and political motives.

Embryonic stem cells are extracted from eggs fertilized in vitro, that is, in a lab. The arguments against such research, as with many other hot-button socio-political issues, are largely derived from misguided, unreasoning and frighteningly uncompromising religious extremism.

Though manufactured artificially and never allowed to mature to any advanced stages of development, many individuals argue that the use of the eggs deprives a human being of a potential life or, in fact, takes a life.

While the idea is noble ‘- that of saving potential lives from the clutches of ‘evil’ scientists ‘- where does one draw the line of potentiality? Is it at the use of an egg for research? What about the use of contraceptives? A potential pregnancy is being prevented in any case of contraceptive use. The absurdities can continue: What about a wasted opportunity for sexual intercourse? Again, a potential life is being quashed. The value in life comes not from its potential, but its existence. If one places value on mere potential, then we are all murderers, people on both sides of this ridiculous debate.

The latter idea, that of taking a life, calls into question what constitutes life. Indeed, it causes us to consider the form and substance of our souls. But even the idea of a soul must come from a conscious mind, a thing that an egg is far from possessing. If a soul exists, surely it is derived from sentience. The point at which sentience is achieved may remain unknown, but at such an extremely early developmental stage one can reasonably observe the lack of such sentience.

Philosophical debates aside, one thing I can be sure of is that preventing a prospective life from developing is far more moral than refusing to act while watching a loved one suffer from a horrifying disease. My grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, one of the many afflictions that stem cell research may find a possible cure for.

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative illness that results in the loss of memory and cognitive functions. My grandmother’s symptoms began with mere forgetfulness, and slowly progressed from there. She would have trouble performing simple tasks, have difficulty recognizing faces and eventually couldn’t even remember her closest relatives.

I remember her calling me on the phone numerous times asking for my father, frightened, wondering why a strange man was in her house. I would remind her that the ‘strange man’ was my grandfather, a man she had been married to for more than forty years.

The last time I visited her was about two years ago. She was and still is a vegetable and lives in a nursing home. I knew that was the last time I would ever see her. I’m not a particularly sensitive person, but seeing the empty yet ‘living’ shell of a once vivacious human being was more than I could bear. The slow, torturous path she took to that state is perhaps one of the most terrifying ordeals I could imagine someone having to endure.

So it angers me when I see posters of babies with thought bubbles that read, ‘Don’t take my life away from me.’ The National Institutes of Health lists embryonic stem cell research as having the possibility to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, strokes, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Potential life is not as valuable as actual life, and sentient human beings are more valuable than life on a cellular level.

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research seek to take life from no one. We want only to give it back to those from whom it would be taken.