Thursday, July 27, 2006 | If those of us who insist on assigning as much reverence to the life of a fertilized human cell as we all do to babies born and grown, we would not permit the frozen excess of these superfluous cells in fertility clinics to be thrown away as so much trash, as hundreds of thousands of them have been and continue to be. We would lovingly place each and every one of these fertilized cells into a minuscule casket and ceremoniously give them all a separate and proper civil and religious burial. The brutal fact that this has never been done and is likely never to be done in the future, speaks far louder than all the pious words hypocritically spoken and written about these superfluous cells, and what is really thought about their moral value. The contrived ethical stance taken by the president in vetoing the bill to relax research with them is a grave insult to the intelligence of a majority of us and an abysmal desecration of the value that the life of fully formed sentient human beings represents. Too many human beings in U.S. and other uniforms are being sacrificed in Iraq at the direction of the same president without so much as offering them the dignity he demands from every excess fertilized cell before they are so unceremoniously discarded. It may be worthwhile for the intelligent general reader to examine this burning issue in some rational scientific depth.
For those of us who drafted and signed the landmark 1988 Webster v. Reproductive Health Service Amici Curiae brief on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, there is no scientific consensus on when a human life begins. In fact life does not begin at conception, because it has been there all along, and merely continues uninterrupted. Thus, to make that assertion meaningful one has to define what is meant by “when human life begins.” It helps to apply scientific evidence because it offers concrete information on the subject from what is known about the physiology of prenatal development as it pertains to viability and brain development, the essential conditions necessary to define a Homo sapiens sapiens, a sentient human being. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, accumulating scientific evidence has not significantly changed the earliest date for viability of the fetus, and it is doubtful that the exquisitely complex process required to lead to viability can ever be speeded up. The outer limit for viability has been and remains at approximately 24 weeks. The reason is that critical organs, particularly the kidneys and the lungs do not mature before that time. The lungs, for instance, do not have the air sacs ready to pass oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of the blood stream. The evidence for these assertions is overwhelming. “Prior to that time, fetal life cannot be maintained outside the womb,” and as the amici brief continues “…there is no reason to believe that a change in this outer limit is either imminent or inevitable.”
The human brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the nervous system begin to develop during the third week of pregnancy, and do not reach nascent maturity until the 14th week, when the fetus is about six inches long and brain waves become detectable. Until that third week there is no nervous system around, nervous activity is nonexistent and thus cannot possibly provide consciousness. A five-day-old blastocyte, harvested for embryonic stem cells, is nowhere near being sentient in any possible sense of that word. There is, however another sense one can add to this consideration. It is the consuming misunderstanding about the benevolence often ascribed to “Mother Nature.” That is far from being the case. Nature is infinitely cruel, unforgiving and profligate of life, because this is an essential condition that insures the continuity and the renewal of life. An infinitesimal number of acorns ever become oak trees. The same is true of most female eggs of all species including human ones. Very few of them get to be fertilized by a male spermatozoon among the millions that seek to reach that one egg. The rest of them simply perish. About half of the entire planet Earth’s living biomass consists entirely of microorganisms that live and die every moment by the trillions. The fight for survival is unsparingly vicious, with no quarter given or taken. For civilized sentient human beings, however, there is the opportunity to give human life the dignity and solace that it is within its capacity to achieve. That requires the ability to discern the difference between just living organisms and sentient living organisms capable of affecting social thought and action. Fertilized human cells and blastocytes are certainly potential sentient human beings, but an extremely minute number of them will ever reach that stage. Homo sapiens sapiens has the capacity to understand and respect the profound difference that exists between a potential and an actual human being.
Elie Shneour is research director and president of Biosystems Research Institute. He is also involved in San Diego regional and in national issues involving science in domestic and foreign affairs. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.