November 2005 – Stem Cells

A July 2005 Pew Research Center poll indicated that more than 50% of Americans have heard a “little” or “nothing at all” about the current stem cell debate. That is likely to change as legislative and constitutional ballot efforts continue to either subsidize indiscriminately further research in this area or to ban tax subsidies to a type of research that many citizens find morally objectionable.

There are moral questions to be explored: does the research respect the ethical values of those asked to subsidize it? One does not have to subscribe to any particular religious view to hold that ends do not justify the means. The common good and justice is best served when evil means are not used to pursue good ends. And certainly governments in a democratic regime should not use taxes to subsidize what a significant part of the electorate would hold to be evil means. And, of course, more pragmatic questions can also be raised: will the research deliver in terms of productivity for the tax payer’s money?

Embryonic stem cell research is ethically troubling on several fronts. The science of embryology shows that at conception –when a sperm cell successfully fertilizes an ovum in whatever environment – an integrated, self-directed, unrepeatable human being is formed, a human being that given a proper environment with proper nutrition and hydration will develop and grow up hopefully to a respectable old age. Some may give no moral status to this human being at one end or other of his life cycle. Nevertheless, many people do. Many would hold that it inherently offends the dignity of all human beings to make some human beings mere commodities, to be bought and sold, or to become the property of research centers that can be experimented on and destroyed at will.

Adult stem cell research (including the use of stem cells harvested from umbilical cords and placentas) is free of any such ethical concerns – and at the same time, research using adult stem cells has already shown productive and positive results. On the other hand, the proposal to subsidize embryonic stem cell research is both ethically troubling and also at the same time – despite the hype surrounding it – it has not shown any productive benefit, nor does it promise to do so in the foreseeable future. In the case of the stem cell debate, then, the moral question and the practical question fall out on the same side.

Florida’s major research institutions, including UF and FAU, focus on adult stem cell research. UCF had been successful in helping bone marrow cells to become neural cells. And a consortium of universities through FSU’s College of Engineering has developed a device that will allow adult stem cells to be grown in greater quantities thus permitting more research. Bio Florida, the state’s biotechnology association, has not supported the constitutional ballot initiative that would fund embryonic stem cell research. The initiative is ethically challenged; but there are pragmatic reasons why Bio Florida does not support it: it would drive $150 million of tax payer monies in this direction over the next 10 years diverting these funds from more productive research already taking place.

Florida’s biotech and science community is not behind the effort to secure tax payer dollars to fund the destruction of live human embryos. In fact, even in this present environment that places no restriction on private funding for embryonic stem cell research, the real science with the most promising results for unlocking the secrets of for future cures to diseases such as Parkinson’s or medical conditions such as paralysis is found in research utilizing adult stem cells. Those supporting the use of tax payer money to create human embryos so that they can be destroyed in experiments of doubtful value have yet to explain who profits if such an amendment passes: not those in the biotech industry that subscribe to ethical standards; not the women who succumb to economic pressures and submit to hyper-ovulatory medicines and invasive procedures so that their eggs can be harvested; and, when funds are diverted from the more promising adult stem cell research, not the sick desperately waiting for a cure. Society in general – and the embryos in particular – do not benefit from public (and even private) funding of embryonic stem cell research. With adult stem cell research everybody stands to benefit.

Good ethics enhances good medicine; it doesn’t impede it. Science can achieve good ends even as it chooses good means in the pursuit of such ends. But, as history has shown, science divorced from ethics degrades human dignity and threatens the entire human project.