New life at the expense of another

By Mark Pickup 

Some time ago, the National Post carried a commentary by Jeff White called "Don't suffer the little children: Our society appears undecided on the ethics of infanticide." White's muddled thinking seemed to advocate a "new ethic" which, I presumed, would embrace culling the herd of its lame and sick.

I read White's commentary from my wheelchair and shuddered to think about what sort of hostility his "new ethic" has in store for people like me who made it past infancy. Should I embrace his throw-away society's "new ethic" or even exploit it to my own advantage?

 

Earlier in l999, the National Report reported that German and American researchers had used embryonic stem cells in animal models to arrest debilitating diseases. The scientists termed their findings a "critical breakthrough" for the treatment of diseases like Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis. Other scientists have speculated that stem cell research also has the potential for developing therapies for Alzheimer's, diabetes, stroke, spinal cord injuries and bone diseases. Last month, a Swedish research team reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience that cells harvested from aborted human embryos can help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson's. About fifty stem cell transplants have been performed on people with multiple sclerosis. Amid this flurry of activity, Canada's Dr. Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, has called for a moratorium on embryonic stem research until moral and ethical issues can be addressed.

Really? I have chronic, degenerative multiple sclerosis and osteoporosis (a bone disease). I might benefit from stem cell research! For years, I have been haunted and taunted by the thought that I may become one of those sad lumps of humanity propped up in wheelchairs, passing monotonous days staring out windows of nursing homes, hoping for a visitor. The terror of such a future torments me at night before sleep comes to give me an escape from the images.

I am dazzled by a dizzying array of promising developments that could alleviate or deliver me from a disease that is slowly destroying me. Dare I entertain thoughts of walking on my own without relying on contraptions of the disabled for mobility - or that cursed MS fatigue? Imagine! Dancing with my wife or skiing with my children instead of sitting on the sidelines. A dream come true! All I d have to do is look the other way from the reality that my deliverance was gained at the expense of another life. Pardon the pun, but I could flesh out the "new ethic" and increase my own internal deformity. Oh God! I am not enjoying a dream, it's a nightmare!

I should have known, it's like a Stephen King novel. I could be released from the risk of breaking bones or continued deterioration with multiple sclerosis by feeding on unwanted human life. To gain my freedom from disease, I would become more wretched by accepting the fruits of robbing another of life, existence and a place in the world. No! The cure would only increase the torment. My hopes dash.

Pivotal to morality is believing in the equal moral worth of all human life. Since early childhood, I was taught to seek truth, then live by it. Is truth arbitrary? Are morals fluid? Are ethics situational? Shall I abandon integrity, principle and what the Americans call "self evident truth" for personal gain?! No.

Sadly, I must turn from a hideous therapy that capitalizes on unwanted life. It is better to remain in a half-dead body than to resurrect lost function and lose my humanity. It can not be. My misfortune has its own illumination:

I am not an island entire unto myself. My decisions must not be solely self-centred; my decisions must take into account possible ramifications on others - society, even implications for posterity. Autonomy is myth. Nobody is independent. All humanity is interdependent as part of the Human Family. My decisions affect others, whether directly, remotely or merely by inference. This must not be overlooked. I must turn away from therapies using stem cells from aborted embryos.

The good news is that adult stem cells can be treated with drugs to mask the immuno-response to a foreign substance. Better yet, stem cells from patients themselves would bypass the problem of immuno-incompatibility. The former biochemist and biologist for America's National Institute for Health, Dr. Dianne Irving, has stated that adult stem cells can be "coaxed" into becoming the type of cells required. Dr. Irving emphatically states, "...adult stem cells are already closer to the kinds of cells that patients need. So there is really no need to use human embryonic stem cells at all." She cites volumes of medical research articles proving her point.

Really? Maybe there is an acceptable application for me after all.

This article first appeared in the National Post (January 4, 2000) and is reprinted with permission.

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Published in Stem Cell Research