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The promise of Stem Cell research should not cost lives to save others

By Nick Ferrett - posted Wednesday, 21 August 2002

Embryonic stem cell research involves the destruction of human life as an incident of speculation that such destruction may yield useful medical knowledge which we might not otherwise obtain. That statement, although emotionally charged, is nevertheless true.

An embryo is a human life-form. It is not something merely with the potential to become a human life-form like an unfertilised ovum. It's the real deal.

That embryo will become a little boy or girl. Once it is fertilised, its DNA, its chromosomes and its other fundamental characteristics have already been set in place. It will be a boy or a girl. It will have a certain colour in its eyes. It will have a certain colour to its hair. When it grows into adult-hood, if it is a male, the fact that it may have male pattern baldness has already been determined. This embryo carries all these very human characteristics.


The debate about whether stem cell research ought to be done cannot be undertaken in the vacuum of utilitarianism. Particularly for us liberals (and I use the term in its descriptive sense rather than its political nominative sense), it cannot be conducted without reference to the fundamental norm of our philosophy, that every human is inherently worthy. The incident of that norm is that human life must have sanctity. That is why we don't execute criminals. It is why we don't follow the example of the Romans and leave disabled babies out in the fields to perish rather than raise them. We understand now that for our human rights to prevail, they must be grounded in principle.

It is very easy to submit to arguments such as the one put in the parliament by Simon Crean that opponents of embryo stem cell research ought to look at the face of a particular paralysed two year old and tell him that they are not prepared to find a cure. Of course, this argument is equally as cruel to those whose opposition to such research is based on sound moral principle as the argument by some of the more intemperate opponents that support of such research is the same as support for Nazi research on human beings. It discounts the strongly - and in many cases faithfully - held views that people have. You will never hear Simon Crean say that those who support mandatory detention of refugees ought to look into the face of a detained child and say "you can't have a home here."

Either human life is sacrosanct or it is not. You don't have to have a religious faith to believe that proposition. You just have to have some semblance of a liberal political philosophy. You can't pick and choose. You can't pick a date in the life of an embryo and say "vivisection is okay as long as you get in before this day." An embryo is a helpless human being and our society shouldn't be in the business of terminating the lives of helpless human beings.

The argument which is used as a trump card by those who support the research is that these embryos are the by-product of in vitro fertilisation. They're never going to be used anyway. There are a multitude of things wrong with this view. Let's examine just three.

First, we should never take the view that human lives which are doomed to an early fate ought to be yielded up before their time for experimentation.

Second, how is it that we got to the stage where it is permissible to create human lives and doom those lives either to a static existence or an early death merely for the convenience of allowing people to have children? In virtually any other field where children are involved (family law or adoption are just two examples) society demands that the needs of the children are put first. When it comes to child-bearing, the needs of children (whether embryonic or born) become incidental to the desires of adults to become parents.


Third, it is argued that IVF is already expensive. If we didn't create multiple embryos, the cost would become even more prohibitive. In other words, we create human life which we immediately doom because it is cost effective. How is it that a society which is so dedicated to human rights has become so casual about human life?

Nicola Roxon MP says that her colleague Christopher Pyne is wrong to say that the difference between a developed foetus and an embryo is negligible. I agree with her: the difference is not negligible, but neither is it fundamental; both are human beings in development. To argue that because one is closer to being born, it ought to enjoy different rights than one which has got a lot further to go is logically flawed and worse, it is cruel.

The research we are talking about is effectively an exercise in trading some human lives for the possibility of saving others – and it is no more than a possibility. There is very little reason to suspect that this research will yield results not available through other means. We shouldn't pick and choose which human lives are valuable and which are not. If we do that, we destroy the fundamental premise from which we draw our society's strength.

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Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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