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Ethics Take Precedence over Medical Advances


The governors of California and Illinois have both ordered millions of extra dollars for stem cell research projects in their states. Earlier this week, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have expanded federal funding of such research.

In the second of two commentaries on this subject, Congressman Dan Lungren of California says medical progress should not be the most important consideration in whether to fund stem cell research.

Representative DAN LUNGREN (Republican, California): I'm the second oldest of seven children. My brother John is two years and two days older than I. We grew up together closer than any other members our family.

Fifteen years ago, my brother John developed Parkinson's. I've learned a lot of things from my brother, most of all that there's a difference between right and wrong, that there's a moral dimension in most of the serious issues that we must face.

HR 810 would permit federal funds to be used for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos that were created in vitro for fertility treatments. Such human embryos are said to be eligible for destructive research, since they're doomed to die anyway. By this logic, one could deem prisoners on death row eligible organ donors, since they too are going to die anyway.

Proponents of the bill claim it offers real hope for those suffering from debilitating diseases because, they say, these cells are uniquely pluripotent; that is, capable of differentiating into virtually all cell types in the human body. This hope so far has proven illusory.

Despite 25 years of animal research on embryonic stem cells, the dramatic predictions made by its proponents have not been realized. This is in large part due to problems relating to tissue rejection and the tendency for tumor formation. Contrast this with the results of adult stem cell research. Currently, treatments for 72 diseases are being carried out with human patients, and these treatments have not required the destruction of any human embryos.

Many of my colleagues who supported HR 810 inexplicably voted against funding for alternate sources of pluripotent cells, processes which would not require the destruction of human embryos. Would I like to support embryonic stem cell research without a question of ethics because it might assist my brother? Surely. But can we divorce all of that from the ethical norm that we must present here? Certainly, we cannot. Because another thing my brother taught me is that true scientific progress entails evaluating not only what we can do, but what we should do.

Even if embryonic stem cell research should someday prove effective, the destruction of one class of human beings for the benefit of another class of human beings raises the most telling ethical considerations. Human life should never be considered a means to an end. The size or age of development of that human life should not be the determining factor, and we must never fall prey to the ethical failures exemplified by the Tuskegee experiments, where nearly 400 subjects, most of them poor black sharecroppers, were left to die from the ravages of syphilis in the name of science.

It is crucial for us as a nation to stand firm for an ethos that innocent human life should be protected as an end in itself.

MONTAGNE: Congressman Dan Lungren is a Republican from California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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