Reflections on Bioethics and Stem Cell Research Seminar:

A student response to
“The Moral Problem of Stem Cell Research” by Dr. Gilbert Meilaender
by Philip Shirk, November 2006

On Friday, November 17, 2006, Dr. Gilbert Meilaender of Valparaiso University presented his argument against embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Dr. Meilaender has extensive experience in the field of bioethics; he is not only a professor of Christian ethics, he is also an author, having written several books on the topic of bioethics and currently serves on The President’s Council on Bioethics.

Dr. Meilaender began the presentation with a very brief overview of ESCR. Although the research has been happening since the 1970s, the debate over the practice was not widespread until the potential of regenerative medicine was realized in the 1990s. Potential benefits of ESCR include improved methods for medicine development; treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and many others; growing spare organs for replacement surgeries; and the scientific desire to increase knowledge. Also, it is important to note that the widespread debate over the issue centers not on the moral ramifications or legality, but on federal funding for ESCR.

With such an incredible array of potential benefits, Dr. Meilaender was not interested in denying the potential benefits of ESCR. Rather, he chose three aspects of ESCR – the humanity of embryos, the use of “spare” embryos, and the use of cloned embryos – and presented his beliefs on the morality of these aspects.

An embryo is the earliest form of a human. It is formed at conception by the fertilization of the egg, and lasts for two months; subsequently it is called a fetus until birth. Many opinions exist as to when an embryo attains the moral status of a human. Some, like Dr. Meilaender, argue that conception is this point; some say two weeks after conception, when the embryo can no longer form twins; still others point to brain wave patterns, which appear much later, because brain waves are used to define death. Dr. Meilaender supported the first argument because no one point in human life is more “human” than any other point – it’s one continuous story.

With the humanity of embryos established, Dr. Meilaender made distinctions between ESCR and war or abortion. While Dr. Meilaender believes that it is possible to respect a human life and kill it, he draws that line at producing a human life solely for the purpose of research and destruction. The argument for abortion, which also destroys an embryo or fetus, is based on the argument that a woman has the right to independence from the infringement of the fetus. However, embryos created for research in no way infringe on anyone, making it more difficult to justify their destruction than to justify abortion.

The second aspect of ESCR that Dr. Meilaender talked about was the use of “spare” embryos for research. “Spare” embryos are a result of other procedures, such as in vitro fertilization, which produce more embryos than are used. The extra embryos are destined for destruction, so many people say that the embryos should at least be used for research before they die. Dr. Meilaender described this as structurally similar reasoning to the cruel medical experiments done on prisoners at Auschwitz and to the Tuskegee experiment. Doctors at Auschwitz could have tried to justify their cruel experiments on Jewish prisoners by saying that it was for the greater good. The prisoners were going to die anyway, why not learn as much from them as possible before they die? Similarly, the Tuskegee experiment, in which the United States public health service observed the effects of syphilis in poor, black, illiterate sharecroppers without attempting to help them, could be supported with the argument that those in the study did not have knowledge of or access to treatment, and therefore were no worse off because of the study. However, Dr. Meilaender describes these arguments as inherently corrupting. Today, the medical experiments at Auschwitz and the Tuskegee experiment are largely considered heinous acts, and Dr. Meilaender would like to see ESCR grouped with them.

The third and final aspect of ESCR that Dr. Meilaender covered was embryos that are cloned for research. These are the most useful for research, but also the most controversial. If embryos are cloned for research, Dr. Meilaender sees no natural stopping point. It is the first step towards live-birth cloning, which is widely opposed. It is not far from growing fetuses for organ harvesting, which would be much simpler than trying to grow just the organ from a few stem cells. Avoiding those scenarios, however, would require the destruction of embryos. They would all be produced for experimentation and destruction.

Dr. Meilaender opposes the use of ESCR because of the destruction of human life that it necessitates. However, if we say no to ESCR, we must also consider what we will tell future sufferers of diseases that may have been treated as a result of ESCR. This is not an easy task. Dr. Meilaender explained that our modern ethics are based on the belief that we must eliminate suffering, and expand choice. Embryonic stem cell research promises to do both of these. However, no medical progress, no matter how great, will ever be able to save us spiritually, to redeem us. Perhaps, rather than trying to minimize suffering, we ought to maximize care.

Response 1: Dr. Brenda Martin Hurst (Associate professor of Practical Theology, EMS)

Dr. Hurst agreed with Dr. Meilaender that an embryo is not just a clump of cells, but proposed another comparison. Sperm and egg cells also hold the potential for life, yet they are produced naturally in grand excess. Is this at all similar to the “extra” embryos produced for in vitro fertilization? Dr. Hurst went on to explain her past experience with infertility. Although she and her husband never tried in vitro fertilization, she explained that the medical process, coupled with the strong desire for children, does not facilitate ethical considerations of the process. Infertility treatment is a maze. Doctors simply talk of the “next level” of treatment as necessary for pregnancy, they do not expound on the ethics of the “next level”. Average patients never seriously consider the implication of excess embryos. As if the process was not confusing and difficult enough, very few couples are willing to seek community guidance on reproductive decisions, meaning that people are making very difficult decisions by themselves.

Response 2: Dr. Roman J. Miller (D.B. Suter Endowed Professor of Biology, EMU)

Dr. Miller’s first comment regarded the foundation of the Christian bioethic. Dr. Meilaender had implied a rule and duty bound deontological ethic, while Dr. Miller favored virtue ethics that grow from one reformed by the grace of Jesus. Secondly, Dr. Miller affirmed the personhood of embryos, stressing that personhood cannot be defined by function. If function were to define personhood, euthanasia of physically and mentally disabled people would be justified, but this is not the case. We as Homo sapiens consider relationships to be of utmost importance, and we have a special relationship with God. This relationship does not allow room for “collateral damage” in terms of human life. It is contrary to the way of Jesus. We ought to have a consistent relationship ethic based on love and caring that should be extended to the most weak and vulnerable among us – embryos.

This seminar highlighted a very controversial topic in modern science, while bringing up a very old moral question – does the greater good justify our actions? Was the use of atomic bombs justified because it very likely resulted in fewer deaths than a continued war would have? In other words, does saving lives justify violence? The world’s answer to this question is, and always has been, yes. However, Mennonites have chosen to reject this worldly view. Mennonites have chosen to stand for peace, to defend the defenseless. Although there are many strong and valid arguments to be made for ESCR, I believe that I, as a Mennonite, must choose to defend defenseless humans.

For more information on SASS, please email .