Several years ago, we were bomarded with the message that a rock from Mars contained all the secrets and indicated life on the red planet. That announcement may have contributed to the high numbers who do believe in extraterrestrial life. Today, the Mars rock message is a little more clouded, but perhaps it can still shed some light on our current debates over embryonic stem cell research and abortion.
When the Mars rock discovery was first announced we were shown the photo to the right with the cylinder shapes that were supposedly evidence of microscopic life. If these proved to be actual organism we were told the possibilities were endless. Maybe we had solved the mystery of how life came to be on Earth. Panspermia advocates rejoiced, saying that this discovery lended credence to their theory. (Still no explanation of how life happened on Mars, which simply moved the problem of life coming from non-life to another planet, but that is for another day.)
The issue of life has been in the news lately with the passage of the embryonic stem cell research bill and the debate over the issue. (For a basically fair assesment of the issues involved in the debate go to Wikipedia.)
Comparing the two issues, if we are to believe the advocates of stem cell research today then the Mars rock discovery was worthless. It wasn’t even a “clump of cells.” It may have been one cell, which we all know does not constitute life. You can even be a woman on a feeding tube and that does not mean you have “life.”
If swiggles on a rock mean life why does the same standard not apply to blastocysts, embryos or “fetuses” (I hate using that word). It seems to me that if scientists saw the image to the left fossilized in a Martian rock, they would have no doubt that it was life. The discovery would be trumpted from every news program across the world and rightfully so.
The blastocyst that are destroyed during the embryonic stem cell research are around five days old and made up of about 100 cells. This is not life, but what could have been on the Mars rock is?
Language in the debate is key, just as you can manipulate poll data depending on how you word the question. You can shift public opinion for a controversial issue by being in control of the language being used. Those in the media never refer to the blastocyst as life because the balance would swing toward those opposed to embryonic stem cell research. How can we deny that it is life when a less organized (evolved) life form was trumpted as life on Mars?
Those in favor of ESCR know that the phrasing is key, so they will rarely admit to the life of the blastocyst, embryo or fetus. If they do then they are left with the option of saying it is a life, but not a fully human. This places them in the unenviable position of resembling the Dred Scott decision, where the Supreme Court, in order to justify the use of black people as property, ruled that they were only two-thirds human.
My question remains in this debate: why rush to destroy what may or may not be life, when other stem cells have already been proven to work. Take the work of Prof. Alan Mackay-Sim of Griffith University in Australia. According to the Wikipedia site, he grew stem cells harvested from the human nose. He had this to say about his research:
These adult olfactory stem cells appear to have the same ability as embryonic stem cells in giving rise to many different cell types but have the advantage that they can be obtained from all individuals, even older people who might be most in need to stem cell therapies.
For over 30 years adult stem cells have been successfully used to treat cancer patients with conditions such as leukemia and lymphoma. Adult stem cells have also been used to treat Parkinson’s disease, paralysis due to spinal cord injuries and other illnesses. Scientists have used adult stem cells to reduce the mass of brain tumors and repair heart attack damage in mice. A team of Korean researchers announced last year that they used stem cells from umbilical cord blood to treat a woman who could not stand up for the last 19 years due to a spinal cord injury. Because of the treatment she can now walk on her own, with difficulty. They have even been used to cure one of the biggest problems facing older men – baldness. All together adult stem cells have successfully treated over 100 medical conditions.
To my knowledge there have been no human illnesses treated with embryonic stem cells. Granted the limiting of federal dollars in the US may have hindered some of the research possibilities, but private businesses and foreign countries can and do engage in research using the blastocysts.
With so much proven potential, why wade into murky ethical waters to push for something that has not proven itself to be more successful?
Why destroy life so that somebody else might have the chance at a “better” life? And don’t say it isn’t life, unless you are prepared to go and tell all the scientists working feverishly on the possibility of life on Mars or microscopic life here on Earth that they are wasting their time. After all if a group of 100 cells is just a “clump of cells,” what could a single cell be?