Researchers announced Monday they had injected embryonic stem cells into a patient suffering from a spinal cord injury. It marked the world's first human clinical trial of a procedure developed from such a source. The procedure took place at Shepherd Center, a spinal cord injury facility in Atlanta. The use of embryonic stem cells for such purposes had been banned under the Bush administration, but allowed under the Obama administration.
The question is why?
In June 2009, Chinese scientists were the first in the world to induce cells from pigs to transform into pluripotent stem cells. Last April, the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego announced the discovery of a new technique that makes artificial stem cells safer for human transplantation.
The artificial cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, are made from fully differentiated adult cells, regressed back into an embryonic-like state. These act-alike embryonic stem cells don't carry the ethical difficulties of real embryonic stem cells, taken from days-old embryos.
President Obama claims to want to make abortion "safe, legal and rare." It is reasonable to say that curbing the use of embryonic stem cells might help make abortion if not less common, then at least less acceptable and restore a small scintilla of respect for human life as something more valuable than, say, a cabbage.
The answer to the "why?" question has something to do with how we view ourselves. If you are an evolutionist who does not believe in a creator who endowed us with the right to life, you might be more liberal in your approach to manipulating human tissue for the "benefit" of others. But that still doesn't justify using embryonic stem cells when artificial ones appear to function just as well.
If, on the other hand, you think "playing God" is not good for the human race and that other ways to relieve suffering can, should and, in fact, are being discovered, you are more likely to want to control human urges to do whatever can be done in a laboratory.
In retrospect, great horrors are usually seen as springing up full-formed. Many people didn't notice the small steps that led to the Nazi Holocaust or to the selling of African slaves in the public square. After the fact, even those who turned a blind eye to such things wonder aloud how it could have happened. Awards are bestowed on those who see evil before it conquers us and try to stop its advance, but not on historians who might have sounded a warning and live only to write about it later.
American novelist Walker Percy saw clearly where the tinkering with human life leads. In "The Thanatos Syndrome," Percy writes, "You are a member of the first generation of doctors in the history of medicine to turn their backs on the oath of Hippocrates and kill millions of old, useless people, unborn children, born malformed children, for the good of mankind - and to do so without a single murmur from one of you. Not a single letter of protest in the august New England Journal of Medicine. And do you know what you're going to end up doing? ... You're going to end up killing Jews."
Contact Thomas, a syndicated columnist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.