The 1973 science-fiction film, Soylent Green, horrified audiences when they realized just what went into the manufacture of the food product from which the film gets its name. In the story, food has become so scarce in the year 2022 that the government decided to feed its citizenry re-processed human corpses.

The protagonist, played by Charlton Heston, discovered what this curious food was made from. He was at considerable pains, however, relating the sordid facts to his people, the uninformed victims of state suppression, who were blissfully unaware of what they were consuming.

What horrified movie audiences in 1973, however, would be rather tame for citizens of today’s culture. But there are some serious-minded people who have reason to believe that what certain researchers would like to be able to do, assisted by government funding, with human stem cells is far worse than what transpired on film in the sci-fi chiller.

Stem cells are embryonic cells that have the potential to develop into a wide variety of specific cells. They are cells that have not been committed, so to speak, to developing into a specific organ or specific tissue. Their genes have not yet “switched on.”

At four to seven days after fertilization, an aggregate of about 140 cells forms a kind of hollow ball, called a blastocyst. Once implantation in the uterus occurs, the cells on the outside of the blastocyst go on to develop the placenta, while those on the inside – the stem cells – are concurrent with the development of the embryo. These stem cells can grow into virtually any of the 210 cell types that compose the human body.

If the stem cells are removed while they are still part of the blastocyst, and therefore before they have become differentiated, it is theoretically possible that they could be directed under laboratory conditions to develop into the type of cell that is needed for a particular transplant therapy. In the case of Diabetes I, for example, a transplantation of insulin-producing pancreatic cells, artificially cultivated from stem cells, might replace their defective counterparts, and, as a result, provide a cure for this devastating disease that affects millions of people.

Similarly, stem cells could be cultivated to provide therapeutic interventions for people suffering from diseases associated with dead brain cells, damaged spinal cells, and weak cardiac muscles. Stem cell research, according to some scientists in the field, could truly revolutionize medicine. States Daniel Perry, the executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research, “The potential therapeutic impact of human embryonic stem cells in replacing cells and tissue damaged by disease or aging is enormous.”

Despite the high hopes that some researchers attach to the therapeutic potential of stem cells, federal governments are reluctant to fund research. The nub of the controversy centers on the fact that the process in which stem cells are taken from the blastocyst constitutes the killing of that living human individual, a being who has an active potential for becoming a fully recognizable part of the human family. The benefits of stem cell research on the other hand represent a hypothetical potential. We cannot be certain, on a merely practical level, that it will be as successful as some people believe.

To offer a green light to stem cell research is tantamount to permitting the killing of some humans in order to supply nourishment from their remains for other humans. Shades ofSoylent Green! Would classifying human beings into two radically distinct groups – those who are to be killed and those who are to be cured – introduce an insidious form of human discrimination? Do we not have enough discrimination already? Is there not an alternate therapy (as some scientists believe) that could be developed apart from killing some for the benefit of others?

Representative Jay Dickey of Arkansas drafted the bill that restricted federal funding in the United States for stem cell research in 1995. He remains strongly opposed to the destruction of early human life that stem cell presupposes. “The horrors committed by the Nazi doctors taught us the lesson that ‘science’ can sometimes be used to hide other agendas and must have limits,” he said. “Nor is there any clear evidence that human-embryo research is the best way to relieve human suffering.”

Ethics often lags behind science. Science merely tells us how to do something. Ethics tells us whether that something is consistent with the best interests of everyone. As rich as science may be in ingenuity, without ethics, it remains impoverished.