Editor’s note. I’ve twice written about Timothy Atchison, the first patient to receive an infusion of a drug made of human embryonic stem cells, who for his own reasons decided to reveal his identity to a Washington Post reporter. The following, from the blog of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, offers an excellent overview of the relevant issues that adds more information to the discussion. You can find it at http://prolifemn.blogspot.com/2011/04/misinformation-poor-thinking-in-age-of.html
The Washington Post has a story about Timothy Atchison, the first-ever patient to undergo an experimental embryonic stem cell injection. (All other stem cell treatments — dozens of different conditions have already been successfully treated — have used ethically-uncontroversial adult stem cells.) We do not yet know whether the embryonic stem cells can or will help Atchison, who is paralyzed from the chest down; there are concerns (including from advocates of embryonic research) that the study is premature, poorly designed and too risky for the patient.
Atchison seems like a really, really great guy, and we all wish him the best. But thePost story indicates to me that he was a victim of more than just a car crash. He was a victim of misinformation and poor thinking — from doctors, a local pastor and apparently everyone else around him, who should have been a source of truth and wisdom, not falsity and confusion.
From the story:
“Raised Baptist in a small town where the main road has more churches than fast-food restaurants, Atchison nonetheless has no moral qualms about helping to launch the first U.S. government-sanctioned attempt to study a treatment using embryonic stem cells in people. The cells implanted into his spine were obtained from embryos being discarded at fertility clinics, he said.
“It’s not life. It’s not like they’re coming from an aborted fetus or anything like that. They were going to be thrown away,” he said. “Once they explained to me where the stem cells were coming from, once I learned that, I was okay with it.”
They “explained” wrong. Is the embryo “life”? Biologically, it is living. But is it humanlife? Biologically, it is human. But is it a living human organism, a member of our species? Biologically, yes, it is: As the National Insitutes of Health explains, an embryo is a “developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation, when it is called a fetus.” In short, a human embryo is a human being in the embryonic stage of his or her (sex is determined) development, needing only a suitable environment and nutrition (no different than any of us) to develop himself or herself through the different stages of life (embryo, fetus, newborn, toddler, child, etc.). There is no doubt about this. It is a matter of scientific fact.
But isn’t destroying an embryo okay if it is “going to be thrown away” anyway? Only if the embryo is not a valuable human being who ought to be respected and protected (go to http://prolifemn.blogspot.com/2011/04/cloning-debate-is-human-scnt-ethical.htm for reasons to think it is). For a human being’s imminent death does not justify intentionally killing him or her. Dying soldiers on the battlefield may not be killed and harvested for their organs. In any case, the advent of embryo adoption has meant that “leftover” embryos need not “die anyway.”
More from the story:
“Immediately after the accident, while undergoing surgeries and other treatments to repair his shattered spine, broken collarbone and pinky, and nearly severed ear at the University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile, Atchison was befriended by the pastor of a local pentecostal church. When he found out the next week what Atchison had agreed to do, the pastor [Troy Bailey of the Reynolds Holiness Church] was uncertain how his community would respond. … objections. But, he said, he has never heard complaints from anyone in the town …
“Bailey said he realized that he had to sort out his own stance, given that some people — himself included — who oppose abortion consider embryonic stem cell research to be immoral. But Bailey concluded that he, too, thought that this treatment was acceptable because the cells were obtained from embryos that had never been implanted in a womb and so had no chance of developing into a fetus.
“I am adamantly against abortion in any form. It did cause me some searching and researching biblically what is the proper answer,” he said. “I don’t really see a baby’s life was destroyed for this to take place.”
“Bailey announced his conclusion to his parish the Sunday after Atchison’s Oct. 8 stem cell procedure and invited the congregation to come to him with
Bailey then devoted three weeks of Sunday school lessons to stem cells and issues he thought were related, such as birth-control pills and genetically designed babies.
“I’m definitely not wanting to encourage harvesting embryos for all kinds of crazy reasons,” Bailey said. “And that definitely led some people to have some hesitancy about some of these things.”
I’m sure this pastor means well, but it is hard to make excuses for him here. Did he manage to “devote three weeks of Sunday school lessons to stem cells” without learning what an embryo is?
Bailey says killing embryos is okay because the embryos “had never been implanted in a womb and so had no chance of developing into a fetus.” But location (in the womb or out) is obviously not relevant to a human being’s moral status. And the embryos in question could, in fact, develop into a fetus given only the appropriate environment and nutrition, just as any human being at any stage of development can develop to the next stage given those same necessities. What if disability or environment prevents a human being (say, a disabled toddler, or a neglected newborn) from properly growing? We still may not kill her in order to harvest her useful parts.
Biblically, human beings are recognized from their conception (Psalm 51:5; Luke 1:41-44). Human beings are made in His image (Genesis 1:27), and ought not be killed for the potential benefit of others (Matthew 19:18). Bailey probably knows this — the main problem is that he is working with the wrong scientific “facts.” And apparently not a single member of his congregation knows those facts or has bothered to learn them!
To be decent and respectful of human dignity in an age of biotechnology, a society must be much better educated than this. Human lives are at stake. There are no excuses.