The Human Question

[1] It was a year ago September during U.S. Senate hearings on embryonic stem cell research. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) took out a blank piece of paper, placed a pencil dot in the center of it, and held it up to Mary Tyler Moore. “This,” he declared, “is the size of the thing we’re talking about.” “That,” Moore replied, “bears as much resemblance to a human being as does a goldfish.”1

[2] Harkin was referring to the size of a blastocyst, the earliest developmental state of an embryo. It consists of a cluster of about 64 cells floating in a hollow fluid-filled sphere. The blastocyst is the result of an egg having been fertilized by sperm some five days before. Think of a blastocyst as an embryonic embryo and you would not be far wrong. In the normal order of things (normal being not in vitro), the blastocyst forms in the fallopian tubes and travels down to the uterus where it becomes implanted. It there takes on a more familiar embryonic shape. To this point it has no spinal cord, no brain case, no eyes, mouth, ears, and it is quite incapable of expressing any preferences about anything, for it has none. It just is. When a blastocyst is the size of a period at the end of this sentence, it is less than a goldfish. A goldfish knows to avoid danger and seek food. A blastocyst is without instinct.

[3] Yet preface blastocyst or embryo with the word “human” and Harkin’s dot-on-paper exercise becomes an object of inordinate conversation and concern. Properly so. It is the word “human” that sets the embryo apart. In a philosophical sense, a human is a “meta-biologic” entity — something that exists within biology, subject to the normal course set for all biological beings. At the same time it is also beyond mere biology, solely and exclusively by virtue of being human. The word “human” is the defining ethical, philosophical and historical construct that allows us to grant to the blastocyst all the potential of a Bach, an Einstein and a Frank Lloyd Wright. For it is like this: once upon a time the potential that became Bach, Einstein, Wright — that became each one of us — was a mere collection of 64 cells floating in a hollow sphere five days after conception. The embryo that was you, became you. It was never anything or anyone else but you. Given safe passage through its biologic journey, it could never have become anything or anyone else but you, only you.

[4] This is why embryonic stem cell research is so problematic and why it has stirred such passion. To hear researchers tell it, human embryonic stem cells may hold the key to the cures for a host of ailments: diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease, leukemia, and they may offer hope in repairing damaged nerve cells that result in paralysis. The lure of using human embryonic stem cells in medical research is overwhelming. (Self-disclosure: I am diabetic, with all the usual complications and vexatious mischief that goes with that disease, and I would very much like to be relieved of it.)

[5] Frankly, from a strictly utilitarian view, embryonic stem cell use makes sense. The embryos under discussion largely are those in frozen storage, left-overs from in vitro fertilization attempts, now common in what is called “reproductive therapy.” There is no accurate census and probably none that can be conducted, but estimates place the number of human embryos stored in the United States at 100,000 to 150,000. The notion is, they are going to waste. Eventually they will be, must be, discarded. Surely, there is some practical “recycling” use to which they may be put. If human stem cells have the potential for alleviating and even eliminating a vast array of human afflictions, and the misery and despair accompanying them, the greater good certainly justifies their destruction. Perhaps it even compels their use. We are not, after all, speaking of beings that are capable of experiencing suffering to any degree whatsoever. This fact at the least should render their destruction and medical use ethically neutral.

[6] And that should cinch that.

[7] But of course it does not. It merely makes proponents of human stem cell research sound calculating, coldly so in my estimation. The question comes down to one of utter simplicity: Is the human embryo human life or is it mere research material? Note, please, it is the embryo’s exact humanness that makes it such a valuable and attractive object for research. And that is what makes our calculated use of it so unhuman. When we fail to regard human life as human — whatever stage of development in which it is found — then we discard something of the essence that defines our own humanity. The human impulse, if it is to be ultimately human, must be to preserve and protect all human life.

[8] All that said, I have said nothing about President George W. Bush’s decision to employ existing lines of stem cells for research purposes, which was the editor’s original interest in soliciting this commentary. Nor have I offered any suggestion of what should be done with the existing population of human embryos, a subject raised above. So, briefly, let me tend to those. The President’s choice was a political choice, subject to all the usual opportunities and constraints pertaining to such decisions. As politics, something that satisfies no one completely, I can accept the use of existing stem cell lines, though not without some uneasiness due to their origin. In regard to the disposition of human embryos presently in storage, “adoption” by infertile couples offers much promise. Indeed, it has already happened. Federal law that offers an incentive for the donation of embryos for implantation and adoption would be a fair means of respectfully recognizing the humanness of the embryo and, at the same time, fostering that potential for development we seek for every human life.

End Notes

1 In remarks before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, September 14, 2000, as reported in Forum Letter (P.O. Box 327, Delhi, NY 13753), November 2000.