A U.S. district judge granted a preliminary injunction today to stop federal funding of embryonic stem cell research because it destroys embryos, which violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (“DWA”) included in federal spending bills beginning in 1995. Under Judge Lamberth’s interpretation of the DWA, federal funds may not be used for any research that results in the destruction of a human embryo. Oddly enough, in March 2009, President Obama signed an executive order permitting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Not surprisingly, the lawsuit in this matter was filed by several groups, several of which have religious affiliations.
The main objection to embryonic stem cell research is that it ends human life. Embryos that are used for research are typically four or five days old. These embryos are typically derived from in vitro fertilization and donated to research because the parents have no intent to use the embryo for childbearing. If the embryos will not be used to bring children into the world, shouldn’t they be used for something?
Scientists believe embryonic stem cells can help treat many diseases and disabilities because the cells can be coaxed into developing into any of the 220 types of cells found in the human body (e.g., blood cells, heart cells, brain cells, nerve cells). The potential medical treatments that can be developed are limitless.
Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, said “Frequently people will say why are you opposed to stem cell research and of course are answer is, we’re not, we’re opposed to the destruction of the embryos to get embryo stem cells.” The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research said it was disappointed by the injunction granted “in response to the latest maneuver by an ideologically driven fringe group,” and suggested that the extensive, deliberative process that shaped federal guidelines should foster government support of embryonic stem cell research.
So, from a purely legal perspective, who is right?
Part of the irony is that the Republican Party, which opposes this purported destruction of life, is firmly supportive of the death penalty in several types of criminal matters. The additional irony is found in the fact that our government blindly supports the separation of church and state to the extreme, when convenient, but bases arguments on this issue on religious foundations.
The real difficulty that our society has is defining life. I doubt our courts would consider a 4-5 day old embryo as a human for purposes of criminal statutes. If so, hypothetical situations taken to the extreme could have women facing criminal charges for drinking or taking medication that leads to the death of the embryo at a time when the women probably did not know they were pregnant. What about in the civil context? If you cause someone to lose a pregnancy that was 4-5 days into development, could you be liable for monetary damages? The permutations on this are mind boggling and ridiculous.
So when does life begin? There have been several answers to this question throughout history, which change as social contexts change, religious morals fluctuate, or scientific discoveries permit new extrapolations. When it comes to abortions, our country has decided that it is okay to destroy a fetus through the first 3 months of pregnancy. So, it is okay to kill a life form (fetus) that had the practical hope of developing into a human being, but it is not okay to kill a life form (embryo) that has no practical hope of developing into a human being?
How do we know when life begins? I could drone on about this topic, but the DevBio publication does a great job at discussing the historical generation of the answers to this question. Science suggests that it is not a life form until it can survive on its own, which still does not provide a definitive timeframe but implies the development of lungs (24 weeks) and other vital structures. Religions usually insist life begins at conception. If you strive for certainty in the law, which is an oxymoron, then you might side with religious teachings – which creates another irony in this debate. If you rely on science to guide your position, then which scientist’s opinion do you follow?
I want to hear some intellectual discussion from my readers. I have not explored all aspects so that you can enlighten me and the others. Further, I hate the hypocrisy ingrained in our government. Is there a simple way to transition into a system that makes sense?