Crossing the Line for Looks That Could Kill
President Bush may have vetoed one stem-cell bill for moral reasons (see Brad Harrub’s report on Apologetics Press), but in other countries where Judeo-Christian values are less prevalent, morality seems a low hurdle in the race to exploit biological resources that promise health, youth, beauty – and money.
With embryonic stem cell research at the forefront of research priorities, a natural law is showing its effects: the law of unintended consequences. The methods of obtaining cells for research, and new applications for their ready availability, are already stepping beyond the original intent of saving lives. Here are signals the brave new world is upon us:
- Merchandising Human Life: Nature August 10 had no less than four articles about the sale of human eggs for embryonic stem cell research. An Editorial1 began with this chilling opening:
Clashing perspectives on the ethics of the donation of human eggs for research purposes are likely to complicate international collaboration – whether stem-cell researchers like it or not.
What price a human egg? The question provokes a variety of emotions and responses. Some will argue that an egg has no monetary value when it is just one of those ovulated each month by billions of women and that perishes unfertilized. Others might contend that the same egg is priceless – because it could, if introduced to the correct sperm, form the seed of a new person. Others still will find it morally problematic even to pose the question, on the grounds that it treats human cells as merchandise.
But the question is being asked, nonetheless…
The Editorial quickly moved on to pragmatic matters about how to obtain the valued eggs without violating donors’ rights.
- Check Catching: Erika Check wrote an article in the same issue of Nature2 about how ethicists are trying to reach a consensus on the price of human eggs donated for stem cell research.
Stem-cell researchers want eggs so they can work on somatic cell nuclear transfer, or ‘therapeutic cloning’. They hope to derive embryonic stem cells matched to patients’ DNA, by transferring the nucleus of one of the patient’s cells into a human egg and developing it into an embryo from which cells can be derived. The technique has great medical potential – but researchers are far from achieving it, and the main limiting factor in the research is the availability of human eggs to practise on.
Some feel that female donors who go through the discomfort of donating eggs should be compensated for the pain and effort, especially those from poor countries. “Others are worried that this will create an undue incentive that will coerce women – especially poorer ones – into giving up their eggs,” Check explains. “The fact that so little is known about the long-term health risks of the procedure further complicates the picture….”
- Into the Unknown: Helen Pearson, in her article in Nature,3 explored why “There is little information on how frequently ovulation stimulation has tragic side effects” on women who donate eggs for research. Part of the problem is that doctors are reluctant to report such effects “and rarely have to.” Though deaths are thought to be rare, long-term effects such as ovarian cancer are little understood when fertility drugs or other methods are used to stimulate ovulation.
- Setting the Price: Insoo Hyun argued in Nature4 that paying women for egg donations is the best practice, but did consider the downside:
Another worry is that compensation could have the unintended effect of enticing socio-economically disadvantaged women to volunteer as oocyte providers. It is unclear whether this concern is mainly about undue inducement, which we have just addressed, or about the exploitation of vulnerable populations. If the latter, then it is worth noting that, for decades, ethical review bodies have been responsible for scrutinizing researchers’ recruitment strategies to ensure that vulnerable populations are not unjustly enlisted. Oocyte procurement for stem-cell research should not be held to a lesser standard.
Hyun did not consider the fallout from this year’ Huang scandal, in which the strong motivation for leadership in stem-cell research induced the researchers to cross ethical boundaries and coerce female team members to donate human eggs.
- Beauty and the Beast: Stem cell therapies are already creating a market for “A barbaric kind of beauty,” wrote Andrea Thompson for the Daily Mail. Some countries with lower ethical standards, like the Netherlands, are enticing women with a “cutting edge nonsurgical treatment” that promises to make them “look ten years younger.” Thompson begins with the story of a 52-year-old British women who doesn”t have time for ethical questions:
She doesn’t care if the treatment is expensive, involves babies and is so controversial that it is not allowed to be performed in this country – among her well-heeled friends, this is the ultimate new elixir of youth.
In Britain, stem cell therapies are limited to “registered institutions using cells from embryos up to 14 days old or aborted foetuses donated to science,” but such limitations do not apply abroad, where whole industries are happy to cater to their “needs.” And if things go awry, well, no business wants the bad publicity. The new rage, she describes, is unregulated stem cell treatments abroad with plenty of promises of beauty, with no ethical qualms.
- Incubators for Baby Parts: Focus on the Family’s Citizen Link had a short article about how “In an insatiable quest to look young, women are traveling overseas for injections of aborted fetal cells as part of anti-aging treatments.” But the fetuses are not the only victims: “In countries like Georgia and Ukraine, young girls are being used as incubators for the babies whose cells will be harvested.” The risky procedures have no clinical trials; “About the 12th week, the baby is aborted and the fetal cells sold to cosmetic clinics. The girls earn about $200 for their trouble.”
- WWJD: Tom Strode on Baptist Press described the opinion of former Democrat congressman Chris Bell, who is campaigning for bringing ES research to Texas. Bell is appealing to Christ’s compassion on the sick to argue that Jesus would support embryonic stem cell research. Strode points out, however, that “Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals” – unlike adult stem cells, which have a long track record of success without the moral concerns. “Extracting stem cells from an embryo destroys the tiny human being,” he said. See related article on LifeNews.
David Miller argued on Apologetics Press that only a return to Biblical ethics will stem the tide of moral abominations that treat human embryos as merchandise. He argues from the Bible that taking embryonic life is equivalent to something God hates: “hands that shed innocent blood.” He concludes, “The fact that we even are debating this subject demonstrates the extent to which the nation has strayed from its commitment to and reliance on the God of the Universe—yet another unmistakable manifestation of America’s downward spiral into moral and spiritual depravity.”
1Editorial, “Safeguards for donors,” Nature 442, 601(10 August 2006) | doi:10.1038/442601a; Published online 9 August 2006.
2Erika Check, “Special Report: Ethicists and biologists ponder the price of eggs,” Nature 442, 606-607(10 August 2006) | doi:10.1038/442606a; Published online 9 August 2006.
3Helen Pearson, “Special Report: Health effects of egg donation may take decades to emerge,” Nature 442, 607-608(10 August 2006) | doi:10.1038/442607a; Published online 9 August 2006.
4Insoo Hyun, “Commentary: Fair payment or undue inducement?”, Nature 442, 629-630(10 August 2006) | doi:10.1038/442629a; Published online 9 August 2006.
Suppose a cosmopolitan rich woman could walk into a prison and go shopping: “Let’s see; I’ll take that one’s skin, this one’s kidneys, and that one’s head on a platter.” The jailer would quickly expedite the order and dispose of the leftovers in the garbage. To what degree is this different, if the prisoner is a fetus in the womb?
Surprisingly few churches are even discussing these issues. In their quest to portray a non-confrontational, seeker-friendly image to draw in crowds, have many of today’s men of God in the pulpit become dumb dogs who cannot bark? Where is the Isaiah for 2006? If you think the current stem-cell atrocities listed here are bad, the day is young in this new age of the godless. These are only the beginning of sorrows. The day may come when even the non-religious pray for a Christian revival.