Thursday, September 17, 2009

Stem Cells and Moral Ambiguity

A colony of embryonic stem cells, from the H9 ...Image via Wikipedia

It is a tricky thing to apply moral principles in situations that are inherently ambiguous. For instance, let's take the debate about stem cell research. Initially, we were talking about using embryonic stem cells and that raised a fire storm from those who are opposed to abortion. Abortion is bad, they say, and any benefit that may be obtained from it implies otherwise and so, no, you can't use stem cells from an aborted fetus. Lately, we've been talking about using our own stem cells instead, but that doesn't seem to make things any easier. There are still those who are angrily fearful that we'll end up skipping naively down the garden path to utter depravity. As if we haven't been there countless times already.

As much as I hate to admit it -- and believe me, I do -- there is some value to be obtained from listening to these people. Unwittingly, they remind us that we can't avoid questions of ethics while experimenting with biotechnology. Not because we're sneaking around like giggling teenage boys who don't want to get caught looking at a copy of Playboy magazine, but because we're human and we wish to act humanely. We have great capabilities and we want to use them responsibly.

That said, we're entering new territory with stem cell research and rethinking the whole question of how to apply moral principles is part of this process.
Principles allow for interpretation and creative application to novel circumstances; absolutes imply rigidity and inflexibility. This is the trickiest part of all because moral principles are often viewed as moral absolutes by persons who have difficulty accepting and managing ambiguity.

Unfortunately, we can't wait for them to adjust completely. We have to move forward because that is the next step. We've come about as far as we can and now we have to go further. It's not just about the potential for good, it's about discovery. Forty years ago we walked on the surface of the moon. That's fine, what's next? Eighty years ago, penicillin was isolated. That's fine, what's next?

Truthfully, we don't know with any precision what's coming around the corner, but we know what will happen if we hang back out of fear and self-doubt: not only do we stagnate intellectually and culturally, but people will continue to suffer and die needlessly. If we have it within our possession to do good and choose to do otherwise, someone please tell me, how is that not a violation of moral principles of the highest order?

(Public domain image of embryonic stem cells via Wikipedia)
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