Culture Challenge of the Week: Slippery Medical Ethics

Article excerpt


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. …