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Heading for The Island: The Island portrays the immorality of the principle behind embryonic stem-cell research, which is that certain human beings can be declared expendable for the benefit of others.

Certain human beings can be declared expendable for the supposed benefit of others. This very flawed principle sets the course for The Island--director Michael Bay's recently released science fiction movie--a course plotted directly through the storm of controversy raised by modern technology. Of course, no human being should ever be considered expendable for the convenience of another, and The Island clearly illustrates the immorality of allowing this principle of expediency to guide our use of technology. (Those who have not seen The Island are hereby warned that spoilers follow.)

In The Island, futuristic technology is used to grow human clones who are dehumanized into "products" and cannibalized for spare parts. But today's science is already capable of sinking to this same depth of depravity with embryonic stem-cell research. Granted, there is a difference. The Island portrays obviously fully human, healthy adults who are being exploited for involuntary organ donation. With embryonic stem-cell research, the victim is a much more helpless embryo who is nonetheless fully human. The human life of that embryo begins at conception and remains even if that life is kept at the embryonic stage of growth in a laboratory. When the embryo is destroyed by stem-cell extraction, an innocent human life is taken. Despite the difference, a closer look at The Island will show how far we could slide down a slippery slope if expediency is allowed to misguide science.

A Tour of The Island

The Island imagines a not-too-distant future in which a huge corporation has developed very advanced cloning technology. For several million dollars, a wealthy individual can "sponsor" the production of his or her own clone. The clone, called an "agnate," will be grown to the same biological age as the sponsor in only 12 months. After this, the agnate can be cannibalized to provide spare body parts for the sponsor. The sponsor is told that the agnate is kept in a vegetative state (in accordance with eugenics laws), and is merely a product, not a human being.

The corporation is lying. Its scientists have discovered that clones will not develop properly without consciousness. The agnates are in fact fully alive and conscious human beings who are kept isolated in an abandoned underground military bunker. They are told that the Earth has become contaminated and only one place outside the bunker still remains inhabitable--"the Island." A lottery is set up to determine who can leave the bunker and travel to the Island, purportedly to begin repopulating the world. In reality, the lottery is rigged so that when a sponsor needs a body organ, that person's clone becomes the winner. Amid much fanfare, the winner is separated from his fellow clones and supposedly departs for the Island. Actually, the winner is taken to an operating room and sedated, the needed parts are harvested, and the clone is killed.

One clone, Lincoln Six-Echo (played by Ewan McGregor), eventually discovers the truth and escapes from the bunker with his friend Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson). Trying to save both their own lives and the lives of their fellow clones, Lincoln and Jordan seek the help of their sponsors to expose the corporation's crimes. They have the somewhat naive hope that their sponsors will choose the morally correct course when confronted with Lincoln's and Jordan's humanness. Meanwhile, the corporation secretly hires elite mercenaries to recover its "lost products." If it became known that the "vegetative" agnates are really living human beings, the corporation would be out of business.

From Fiction to Reality

The similarity of the business of harvesting organs from unwilling adult clones to that of collecting stem cells from helpless human embryos has not been lost to reviewers. Roger Ebert asks, "Does stem cell research ring a bell?" A.O. Scott of the New York Times notes: "The issues raised by the possibility of human cloning are vexed in themselves, and they are also connected to more immediate debates about abortion, stem cells and euthanasia. These debates are quite pointedly invoked ... whenever the question of Lincoln and Jordan's humanity is raised." Indeed, The Island unapologetically portrays Lincoln and Jordan as human beings who possess the right to life. While the movie does not explicitly state anything about embryonic stem-cell research, it is hard to miss the connection.

However, many people, in reality and in the movie, refuse to be inhibited by the obvious wrongness of destroying one human to benefit another. Reuters reported on July 29 that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist "endorsed legislation that would expand federally funded embryonic stem cell research." He is even quoted by Reuters as saying: "I am pro-life, I believe human life begins at conception. I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported." This is reminiscent of what happens when Lincoln Six-Echo meets his sponsor. The sponsor recognizes that Lincoln is a human being, but that doesn't stop him from trying to take Lincoln back to the corporation for involuntary organ donation.

Frist is correct in saying that human life begins at conception. But he is tragically willing to play God in deciding that some human beings should give up their lives for a supposed greater good. Making the tragedy even greater is the fact that there is no reason to even consider compromising the sanctity of life in order to save life. Research on adult stem cells--which can be obtained without the destruction of innocent human life--has already yielded results that embryonic stem-cell proponents can only dream of achieving.

This magazine has repeatedly reported the ongoing development of successful treatments arising from adult stem-cell research. In "Pro-life Stem-cell Therapy" (December 27, 2004), we noted a November 28, 2004 report from the French news agency AFP that declared: "A South Korean woman paralyzed for 20 years is walking again after scientists say they repaired her damaged spinal cord using stem cells from umbilical cord blood." And in "Another Adult Stem-cell Success Story" (January 24, 2005), we related how doctors had used a seven-year-old girl's own adult stem cells to repair 19 square inches of her skull that had been damaged in a fall. Last December, AP quoted Dr. Hans-Peter Howaldt of the Justus-Liebig-University Medical School in Giessen, Germany, as saying, "The skull is now smooth to the touch, the missing parts replaced by thin but solid bone."

The potential of adult stem cells is amazing. Just last month, AFP related that "Swedish researchers have created new functioning brain cells from stem cells drawn from the brains of living adults, sparking hope that effective treatments for devastating illnesses like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's could be at hand." Isn't a bird in hand worth two in the bush, especially when the bird in hand doesn't require the sacrifice of innocent lives that searching through the bush demands?

Our Principles Will Plot Our Course With adult stem-cell research offering both proven results in the present and promising developments in the future, why even start down the dark path of embryonic stem-cell research? If we embrace expediency and come to believe that an embryo's human life can be sacrificed for the sake of some purely hypothetical benefit, where do we draw the line? If an embryo must die for the greater good, why not a fetus? If a fetus, why not a baby who is partially born? Why not a baby after birth? Why not someone who is old, sick, handicapped or mentally ill? And why not a perfectly healthy human being who has been dehumanized by the propaganda mill?

It is true that in the real world our technology does not yet allow us to grow viable human clones. Moreover, destroying an embryo for stem cells may not seem as grotesquely immoral as carving up an adult for parts, but the principle of expediency at work in both situations is still the same. Someday science may catch up to fiction. If we have perversely practiced for that moment by becoming callous to the destruction of human life at any stage of development, then we will have arrived at The Island.
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Author:DuBord, Steven J.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 22, 2005
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