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Stem cells: The larger issue

By approving Federal Funding for Stem-Cell Research only on embryos that are already no longer viable, President George W. Bush took a moderate, short-term solution that does little to resolve the larger issue of medical research vs. human rights.

Now, the argument centers on what is commonly referred as “the human rights” of the discarded embryos. The underlying reasoning is that embryos that are used for medical research are being denied the chance to complete their procreation, thus denied the chance – their right – to exist.

This argument is an extension of the “Right to Life” argument used by those who have long sought to deny women their right to make the ultimate decisions respecting their own bodies. Not content to ascribe civil and moral rights to the unborn, the opponents of abortion and stem cell research now wish to extend their protection to the uncreated.

This is hardly a new issue. Humans seem to have an ingrained fear and mistrust of the advancement of knowledge. After all, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge, and Prometheus was consigned to eternal torment for passing the knowledge of fire to man. There are many for whom the “good old days” are preferable to the present, and the status quo and the known are certainly to be preferred to a future that is unknown. The past is thus enveloped in a cloak of “tradition” and “moral righteousness” and the present is dedicated to its “preservation.”

As for “human rights,” what are these, precisely? The Declaration of Independence affirms that all are endowed with “inalienable” rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and the American Constitution embodies means to preserve and protect them. Yet some of these rights are in clear conflict with others, and American society has a long tradition of placing limits on its own citizens. Convicted criminals are subject to restrictions of their civil rights, in some cases even beyond their legally imposed punishment. Children do not enjoy the same rights as adults. Even some adult citizens find their rights limited based on their lifestyle or behavior. So, with no clear conception of human rights, and varying criteria as to how it could be extended or denied, how can it be used as an excuse to prohibit research?

In order for human rights to be fully realized, these rights must be taken in their widest, most inclusive context possible. To use the defense of embryonic human rights to exclude and deny the rights of living human beings is at best, hypocrisy. At worst, it undermines the very principles we wished to affirm in the first place. Rights should serve as a light to the future, not a barred door denying it.


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