Right to life observer finds panelists prefer to discuss science over ethics

On Feb. 1, York University’s Bethune College held a Stem Cell Symposium, attended by about 200 students and a smattering of professors. The science of stem cells was presented with clarity as the six-member panel examined this exciting new ground of regenerative medicine. But despite giving lip service to the ethics of using stem cells derived from human embryos, only one speaker came out against the practise.

Following five speakers who focused on the science, Dr. Bridget Campion, a professor of ethics at St. Augustine seminary, provided a view of life that does not accept embryos as fodder for scientific research. She said human life was cyclical, that it begins and ends in the same place, a place of innocence, where the need for others’ love and care is vital for survival. There is no time when the human person is not in this cycle of life, whether he is in the embryonic stage or the final stages of old age. Society, however, tends to think of life in terms of what she called “the alpine view of humanity.” The alpine view judges a person’s worth depending on how high up she is on the “mountain of life.”

The other five speakers seemed to hold such views.

Dr. Janet Rossant from the University of Toronto gave a straightforward presentation on the science of stem cells, and while she admitted that embryonic stem cell research has serious ethical questions, she did not address them. She did, however, come out against the use of cloned human beings as a source of embryonic stem cells, but weakened her position by supporting mere regulation of the practise through licensing restrictions and not a ban with the force of criminal law behind it. She said there should be flexibility in this matter in case society was to change its views on human cloning.

Mary Jardine, national director of the Parkinson’s Society, endorsed embryonic stem cell research and supported the federal government’s draft legislation which allows for the use of human embryos in medical research for up to 14 days, (employing, essentially, an ends-justifies-the-means argument.)

Dr. John Dick of the Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto, warned that after years of failing to replicate the success of his stem cell research in mice in human trials, science still has a long way to go. He said the media hype surrounding stem cell research seems to promise cures that do not yet exist.

Derek Van Der Kooy of the department of Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto, researches stem cells in the human eye. He said even adult or somatic stem cell research raises ethical issues. His research indicates the importance of controlled experiments – he found eye stem cells grow only when isolated – and warned of stem cells that mutate in unexpected and potentially harmful ways.

Liora Salter from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University described her theory of the life cycle of a public debate. Salter said the best time to make public policy decisions is in the first and second stages of a public debate when the issue is still relatively undefined, unclear and complex, and when the issue is still in the hands of intellectuals. By the third stage sides start to form, the vocabulary of the debate is established and people “get clumped together on one side or the other.” Stage four, according to Salter, is the impoverished state of the debate when issues are based on belief, and the sides are so oversimplified that there is no reason to adhere to them other than belief. She says there is no resolution to this kind of debate and identified abortion is an example of a stage four debate. She seemed to miss the fact that though science and ethics are complex, complexity is not synonymous with ambiguity. Science and ethics can at once be very complex and very clear. Her line of reasoning was essentially a kind of moral relativism dressed up in sheep’s clothing.

Audience questions about certain ethical issues surrounding stem cell research were often skirted. Unfortunately, science appears to have taken the embryo to a place where it is not recognized for what it is – a member of the human species. Instead, it is looked at under a microscope in a laboratory and seen as a means to satiate the hunger for scientific “progress.”

Natalie Hudson is the executive director of the Right to Life Association of Toronto and Area. A longer version of this article appears in the organization’s February 2002 newsletter.