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J.F. Kelly, Jr. - Contributor

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

The Great Stem Cell Debate
Two sides...

[J. F. Kelly, Jr.] 6/1/05

Perhaps no other issue better demonstrates polarization among Americans than the current debate on embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. As in most issues where religions define the beliefs of its members, there is little or no room for compromise. One’s position on this matter largely depends upon one’s beliefs regarding precisely when human life begins.

Religion and science have been at odds throughout much of the history of man. Science unceasingly tries to expand the frontiers of human knowledge and discovery and religion, at least in the view of many, often seeks to constrain it, warning about the evils of meddling in God’s business. But as science regularly discredited many comfortable religious teachings and superstitions, religions were forced to make grudging concessions to scientific progress but often only after fierce resistance.

In spite of prevailing religious beliefs, we eventually learned that the earth was not flat after all and that there was more to the universe than heaven, earth and hell. Science and religion have managed to coexist and many brilliant scientists are indeed devoutly religious. But he fact remains that if science had not persevered in the face of religious opposition and even condemnation, we might still be living in an age when people with mental illnesses were thought to be possessed of evil spirits.

Embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning offer immense potential for treating and perhaps curing dread diseases that cause agony and death not only in the elderly population but also among children and young adults. The former involves the use of discarded frozen embryos from fertility clinics. The stem cells are extracted to hopefully develop into any cell type in a stricken patient. The process results in the destruction of the embryo, which would almost certainly have been disposed of anyway as biological waste unless “adopted” and implanted in a human uterus requiring the consent of the legal owner(s) of the embryo(s). Therapeutic human cloning, which has been successfully accomplished in South Korea but is banned in the United States, involves fertilizing a human ovum from a donor in a petri dish and growing it in a laboratory for several days to permit extraction of the stem cells for the same purpose.

Opponents argue that a fertilized human ovum is, from the instant of fertilization, a human person. Some religions, including the Catholic Church, teach that it has a soul and even often refer to it as a child. They, therefore, regard its destruction at any stage and for any purpose as not just morally wrong but as murder. For the same reason, they oppose abortion under any circumstances, including rape, incest, to prevent an abnormal birth or to save the life of the mother. There is no compromising on this position. No middle ground. No exception for research on existing stem cell lines.

Those who favor such research see their position as the “pro-life” one, the one that salvages discarded, unwanted embryos to work on promising cures and treatments which may save or prolong human life and ease human suffering and disease. “What could be more pro-life?” they ask.

Who is right? Which argument is the more persuasive? Those who would ban the research are clearly driven by religious beliefs. But those who urge the research, including Nancy Reagan, believe that they hold the moral high ground. You can argue until you run out of breath or ink but you are probably not going to change many minds. Logic versus faith arguments generally are a waste of time.

In the heat of the debate, it is sometimes alleged that Mr. Bush seeks to ban stem cell research. He, of course, is seeking no such thing. He seeks only to ban the use of federal funds for its support. He feels that it is wrong to require that people be forced to support with their tax dollars activities that they believe are morally wrong. He is absolutely right in taking this stand. For the same reason, it was wrong for California to fund this research with the tax dollars of those who believe on religious grounds that the activities involved are morally wrong.

But with or without the use of tax dollars, stem cell research in the United States will continue, utilizing private funds and in some states, public funds. Other countries will duplicate or expand upon South Korea’s pioneering efforts in therapeutic cloning. The continuing conflict between science and religion will only slow, not stop, scientific progress. tOR

copyright 2005 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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