I am not a scientist. And I’m certainly no expert in stem cell research. What is important here, however, is more the general morality than the biological details. So I will try and avoid anything too precise and stick to guiding principles and broad pros and cons.
There are certainly some aspects of stem cell research which immediately call for caution. I think I can fairly safely draw the distinction between research on adult stem cells and research on embryonic stem cells. The former involves the use of stem cells collected from developed human tissue, while the latter uses cells sourced through the destruction of an embryo.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at the university last year, he warned against “that aspect of stem cell research and the whole biogenetics world which encourages us to think of human tissue and human organs in a more functionalist way.” There is quite evidently a large dose of this functionalism in embryonic stem cell research.
To see an embryo only in terms of what it can provide to fully-developed humans entirely misses the point of what an embryo is. It is not a source of raw materials, but is a human life in itself, albeit an underdeveloped one. The cells can be made into different types of tissue but will always be the same human being, or at the very least the same potentiality.
A relatively useful analogy can be drawn with organ donation and transplants. In effect, destructive embryonic research has many similarities with the killing of a man to harvest his organs: even if the transplants were to save many lives, this would not justify the killing itself. But it is not just embryonic stem cell research that is in danger of suffering an overdose of functionalism. The proposal last year to allow tissue to be removed from incapacitated adults, and indeed children, for the purposes of stem cell research turned the human being into a harvestable source of goods.
Life is a mystery that goes beyond our current understanding, and so we must be particularly cautious when treading in the far reaches of this understanding. It is not a choice between science and ethics but a matter of guiding science down an ethical route. We must be careful to draw a distinction between research with human tissue and experiments on human beings. And we must remember that the emphasis is on the human and not the tissue; that the human always comes first. The ethical route also seems to be producing the most promising results, which makes the right decision even easier to make.
None of these is a decisive argument against all stem cell research or treatment, nor are they meant to be. They do, however, suggest that we should be cautious over how stem cells are collected and used. We must remember that the ends do not necessarily justify the means. At a time when President Obama is being praised for realising that the gathering of intelligence does not justify torture, it would be contradictory to suggest that the potential benefits of unethical research outweigh the loss of respect for human life. Even in this world, some things are absolute.