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The sound of science: the power to bless or to burn.

Throughout history, but particularly over the course of recent years, advances in the biomedical sciences have granted humankind an ever-greater understanding and mastery over itself. In this perpetual revolution, perhaps there has been no greater chapter than that of the much-heralded "Promethean promise" (1) of stem cell research. However, while its promise and potential are marvelous, it is feared--and not without reason--that an essential part of what it is to be human may be lost in seeking to control this new-age fire. On the other hand, deciding not to pursue such research runs contrary to human nature and to the best that humankind has to offer: in not engaging in stem cell research, a certain dimension of humanity very well may never be discovered and, tragically, the great potential which stem cell research offers would never come to be. It would seem, therefore, that the crucial issue is not so much whether stem cell research should be pursued, but how and to what extent.

Marcel Proust once said that, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Embarking upon this new chapter will require new eyes for seeing and accepting novel ways of understanding what it means to be human. Although the question of human identity cannot--and will not--be answered satisfactorily, recent scientific advances both demand and permit a fuller understanding. As such an understanding continues to develop, the line around which "human being" is drawn should be painted with an inclusive, broader brush. Given current ethical uncertainties, particularly where embryological stem cell research is concerned, the line should be drawn as loosely as possible, with the understanding that further knowledge will advance that line. (2)

Restless and seeking, (3) humankind is eternally driven to push beyond the boundaries wherein it is confined--and, by implication, defined. Indeed, perhaps it is in perpetually transcending and redrawing the lines that define that humankind's questing nature is most clearly expressed. (4) Thus driven toward (self-)perfection, (5) humankind is not only compelled but obliged to take up the search for science's most recent grail; seeking to perfect oneself and to rise above nature is not to play God but to be human. Yet in spite of such advances, it must be understood that there is no gene for the human spirit: being human is not to be perfect but to perpetually seek perfection. As the likes of Vincent Van Gogh have so poignantly demonstrated, a flawed and even tortured personality can produce great and beautiful works in spite of--or in many ways thanks to--his or her flaws. It is in questing, rather than in achieving the quest's end, that humankind becomes human.


Perfection, however, implies a moral dimension. As such, it is not so much in the act of transcending those confines but in how such confines are transcended that humankind is most fully defined. Such being the case, humankind is not only obliged to transcend its limitations, it also is obliged to do so ethically.

Research not only reveals that humankind is mortal and imperfect, but also that it is forever gazing and reaching for the stars. Such work should inspire, and yet much of the present scientific and medical literature is bereft of any sense of wonder. By contrast, in reading the works of Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin, for example, one cannot help but feel inspired by the sense of awe and passion with which these adventurers were filled at "thinking the thoughts of God after Him." If there is still excitement in seeking to think such thoughts, such a sentiment is no longer expressed. Moreover, in emulating science, medicine also has tended to assume this distanced, purportedly objective, style of writing.

The absence of sound and fury may signify nothing, and yet silence is seldom indicative of life and living. Stem cell research may unlock some of the greatest of natural wonders, and yet where is the wonder? Many of the greatest scientific and medical discoveries have been driven by curiosity and wonderment, and while such a drive is certainly still evident today, its presence has become rather muted. (6) The concern is that such detachment is symptomatic of a reductionist approach employed by biologic imperialists who perceive the resources and wonders of the world simply in terms of material for manipulation and consumption. If such is indeed the case, then it is only a matter of time before humankind is likewise subsumed.

This dispassionate approach is most concerning with regard to embryological stem cell research where the embryo is frequently perceived as simply so much biologic matter. (7) Certainly, it would be nonsensical to equate a human embryo with a human person: personhood grows and develops throughout one's life and is dependent upon interacting with the world and with others, something of which the embryo is clearly incapable. Nonetheless, as the precursor to a human person, the embryo has an inherent dignity which should be recognized and celebrated.

Rather than draw an inclusive line, however, scientists have proceeded to partition when and where and what constitutes "human" life. For many scientists, (8) human life starts after the fourteenth day of the embryo's existence: at or around this date, the primitive neural streak begins to appear and, it is believed, that twinning is thereafter impossible. (8) Incidentally, it is at this same time that the enucleated egg created by somatic nuclear cell transfer (ie, cloning) must be implanted in the womb if, given our present technological skills, it is to survive. (7) Before the fourteenth day, the cells of the embryo have not yet begun to differentiate; nonetheless, the cells are functioning together in the development of a single, increasingly mature human being. And while it may be possible to detach a cell or a group of cells at an early stage to form two (or more) distinct organisms, such a procedure fails to show that before detachment the cells of the embryo only constitute an incidental mass: as a flatworm is a unitary individual before dividing into two whole flatworms, so, too, is the embryo. (9) Furthermore, while it is not (presently) possible to determine whether twinning will occur, perhaps the embryo is predetermined from conception for such a twinning. Consequently, while there are many practical reasons to adopt and to believe in this moment of demarcation, it appears to be one of convenience rather than one of conviction.* (10)

The implications for determining a point at which human life begins are significant and set a dangerous precedent for partitioning such life. In so deciding that the embryo is not a human being, could there also be a point when an adult human, although perhaps still alive and (biologically) functioning, ceases to be human? And if so, what degree of respect would be due to that human being? In so dissecting humankind and human life, there is the risk of trivializing and reducing it to the level of just one more (living) thing--indeed, such has already been done by those (11) who would argue that the ability to feel physical pain is the definitive criterion for deciding whether the embryo is human and deserving of respect. Man is more than the measure of his parts; in orchestrating man's reduction, the new-age Prometheus cannot help but fail to see the essence and the mystery of what it is to be human. (12)

Given the above concerns, it seems reasonable to say that embryonic stem cell research, which, to date, has yielded only very modest results, (13,6) should be abandoned in favor of furthering research on adult stem cells which shows more promising signs with fewer moral (14,15) and practical (1,13,6) concerns. Moreover, recent advances (16) have demonstrated that drawing the line due to ethical concerns does not preclude progress; if anything, it may be said to encourage further avenues of discovery.

Through modern medicine and science, humankind has been empowered with a degree of self-mastery that was heretofore unthinkable, and the new fire of stem cell therapy promises still further advances. The possibilities are remarkable, and the hope and curiosity which this quest engenders should enflame the best of humankind. Unlike other scientific grails, however, stem cell research holds out the unique possibility of controlling humanity. This possibility is important as how humanness--and humanity--is valued is often shaped by humankind's relationship to technology. (17) As such, it is understandable how the Promethean promise may be seen as threatening to herald a new "regime of biopower" (18) that may fundamentally change the "contours of human life" (19) and what it means to be human. As others have pointed out, (20) however, the crucial question is whether such research is being driven by a passion for life, or by a passion to control life; in a world where the latter is the case, there is reason for concern, as the wonder--the sound and the fury--of life is at risk of being extinguished.

It would be against our better nature not to pursue stem cell research, and yet with greater power comes greater responsibility. Consequently, there should be a concerted effort from within the scientific and medical communities to rekindle a greater sense of awe and respect, both for life and for humankind's increased--and ever-increasing--powers over life. Perhaps such an end might be best achieved if further attention were given to thinking across the various academic and cultural columns, therein providing a fuller understanding of what it is to be human, while hopefully lessening the perception of humans as merely remarkable biologic composites. Moreover, in developing such miracle cures, it is important that the benefits which come from stem cell research are not solely reaped as a commodity (21) by the wealthy but are also made available to the world's underprivileged (22)--after all, genuine concern and respect for human life extends to concern for all of humanity. A dual sense of respect and passion for life is the best hope of preserving the best of what is human, both in the individual and in society, and it is for that reason that scientific dispassion (such as stem cell research) should be taken as a matter for concern.

Thus is humankind dually challenged: at once, to embrace and to take up the quest for the grail of stem cell research--to which it is spurred by its very nature--and, at the same time, to use the powers of this new-age fire for the betterment of all of humankind--to bless rather than to burn.


1. Rosenthal N. Prometheus's vulture and the stem-cell promise. N Engl J Med 2003;349:267-274.

2. Hoose B. Gene therapy: where to draw the line. Hum Gene Ther 1990;1:299-306.

3. Augustine. Confessions. Henry Chadwick, trans. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.

4. Rahner K. Foundations of Christian faith; an introduction to the idea of Christianity. William V. Dych, trans. New York, Crossroad, 1982.

5. Keenan J. Perfecting ourselves: on Christian aestheticism and enhancement. South Medical J In press.

6. Solter D. From teratocarcinomas to embryonic stem cells and beyond: a history of embryonic stem cell research. Nat Rev Genet 2006;7:319-327.

7. Cameron C., Williamson R. In the world of Dolly, when does a human embryo acquire respect? J Med Ethics 2005;31:215-220.

8. McMahan J. Cloning, killing, and identity. J Med Ethics 1999;25:77-86.

9. Haldane J., Lee P. Aquinas on human ensoulment, abortion and the value of life. Philosophy 2003;78:255-278.

10. Callahan D. The puzzle of profound respect. Hastings Cent Rep 1995;25:39.

11. See, for example, Dawkins R. The God Delusion. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

12. John Paul II. Evangelum Vitae. Vatican, Holy See, 1995.

13. Prentice DA. Current science of regenerative medicine with stem cells. J Investig Med 2006;54:33-37.

14. Sutton A. 'No' to embryonic stem cell research. South Med J 2006;99:1442-1443.

15. Sutton A. 'Yes' to adult stem cell research. South Med J 2006;99:1444-1445.

16. Klimanskaya I, Chung Y, Becker S, et al. Human embryonic stem cell lines derived from single blastomeres. Nature 2006Aug 23; [Epub ahead of print].

17. Dyer AR. The ethics of human genetic intervention: a postmodern perspective. Exp Neurol 1997;144:168-172.

18. Jennings B. The liberalism of life: bioethics in the face of biopower. Raritan 2003;22:133-146.

19. Lauritzen P. The ethics of medical genetics: the challenge of realizing the potential of genetic medicine without reducing ourselves to artifacts.

20. Sulmasy D. Promethean medicine: spirituality, stem cells, and cloning. South Med J 2006;99:1419-1423.

21. Pellegrino E. The commodification of medical and health care: the moral consequences of a paradigm shift from a professional to a market ethic. J Med Phil 1999;24:243-266.

22. Farmer P. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005.

Conrad C. Daly, MTh

From East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN.

Reprint requests to Conrad C. Daly, PO Box 70429, Johnson City, TN 37614. Email:

*As Daniel Callahan has pointed out, the implication of selecting the 14th day as the decisive moment for choosing to permit stem-cell research implicitly challenges the decision of Roe v. Wade to permit abortion until a much later date.
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Title Annotation:Special Section: Spirituality/Medicine Interface Project
Author:Daly, Conrad C.
Publication:Southern Medical Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2006
Previous Article:To condone or to condemn? On the ethics of stem cell research.
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