FIRST-PERSON: Will we use medical treatments developed by ill-gotten means?

by C. Ben Mitchell, posted Friday, August 10, 2001 (13 years ago)

DEERFIELD, Ill. (BP)--Of all the advisers President Bush consulted before making his decision on human embryonic stem cells, one of the voices he failed to heed was that of Solomon. When two women came to Solomon, both claiming a child as their own, in his great wisdom Solomon suggested that the baby be killed and half given to each woman. At one level, this seemed to be a fair compromise. Solomon knew, however, that the real mother would sooner give up her child than have him or her cut in two. Thus, the real mother was revealed to all.

The president's decision to fund human embryonic stem cell research using existing cell lines is better than some of the compromises he could have made, but his decision still lacks wisdom. While his decision does prohibit tax funding for research that destroys additional embryos for stem cells, nevertheless his plan funds research using embryonic stem cells already retrieved. Make no mistake about it, these cells have been harvested by killing human embryos. They are morally tainted and any benefits from research on those cells will be ill-gotten gain.

One analogy that will doubtless be offered is of retrieving donor organs from people who have been murdered. In some cases, family members have chosen to donate the organs of their loved ones who have died by homicide. They hope that some good can result from their tragedy. This is precisely not an apt analogy. In this case, the killer, if found, is viewed as guilty of a horrendous crime, tried for that crime and punished. Every member of the community is taught that murder is wrong and that we will not tolerate it as a society.

With the president's decision, not only will those who killed the embryos not be viewed as morally guilty, they will be rewarded for their deed -- and in some cases applauded -- by receiving government funds for their research. Some of the private firms that have performed embryo-destructive experimentation will charge tax-funded researchers for human stem cell lines. In other cases, the researchers who have already destroyed human embryos for their cells will walk across the street to their university lab and receive our tax dollars to experiment with those cells. This is like paying and thanking the murderer for killing your loved one. This is like paying the perpetrator for the organs of your family member. The researcher becomes complicit in the crime.

Those who have the most to gain in this scenario are not suffering patients, but commercial drug companies and biotechnology firms. Typically, we fund basic research with tax dollars. Because of the huge sums of money required to get a therapy to market, the rights to a discovery are sometimes licensed to for-profit companies who end up making millions of dollars on products whose research we paid for with our own money. So, we end up being bilked at both ends. We pay our taxes for research and we pay again at our pharmacies for the drugs.

Our tax dollars should not be used to fund research we find morally reprehensible. Yet, President Bush's decision makes us pay for tainted research. It's like forcing us to eat our own offspring and charging us for the meal.

Now every citizen will have to make this agonizing decision all over again. Will they take advantage of treatments or therapies obtained at the price of embryonic lives? Even more excruciatingly, will they use those treatments for their children and loved ones? We should not have to make the choice to either use therapies gotten through scientific misdeeds or suffer the consequences. We should be able to enjoy the benefits of ethical research without being complicit in a form of biotechnological cannibalism.

Southern Baptists are on record as opposing embryo-destructive research. Our resolutions and our Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission have spoken loudly and clearly on this issue. Now it's time for the real test. Will we allow the baby to be divided so we and our loved ones can have our half? Or, will we, unlike President Bush, take the moral high ground and refuse potential treatments gotten at the price of human embryonic life?

What would Solomon say?


Mitchell is consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is also associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., and senior fellow of the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.