Magazine article Free Inquiry

Stem Cells and Immortal Souls

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Stem Cells and Immortal Souls

Article excerpt

When a human embryo consists of not more than 64 cells, its cells are, like a young dog, able to learn new tricks. If injected into a diseased kidney, they take on many of the properties of ordinary kidney cells, and may help the kidney to perform its normal function. This seems to hold for any organ, even any kind of cell. This is exciting medical researchers, because it means that, at least in theory, the cells from an early embryo could cure leukemia, enable people with diabetes to manufacture insulin, treat Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, and repair the nerve systems of quadriplegics.

But medical researchers aren't the only ones excited by the prospects of using embryo stem cells. In the United States, 70 members of Congress have opposed a proposal from the National Institutes of Health, the major government funding body for medical research, to sponsor work using human stem cells. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has lobbied Congress to prevent the use of federal funding for the research, and when a coalition called Patients' Cure began to campaign for embryo stem cell research, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore wrote to the American Cancer Society, a sponsor of Patients' Cure, to urge it to reconsider its position. The American Cancer Society withdrew its support from Patients' Cure.

Opponents of research on human embryos usually start and finish their argument with the claim that the human embryo is, from the moment of conception, a living, innocent human being. But the morality of using a being for research should depend on what the being is like, not on the species to which it belongs. Other things being equal, there is less reason for objecting to the use of an early human embryo--a being that has no brain, is not, and never has been conscious, and has no preferences of any kind--than there is for objecting to research on rats, who are sentient beings capable of preferring not to be in situations that are painful or frightening to them (Note the qualification "other things being equal. …

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