SBC Life Articles

An Evil Means – To What End?

Scientists have discovered medicinal value in human embryonic cells. However, according to two Southern Baptist ethicists the value does not justify the "evil means" in the process.

The landmark achievement of isolating stem cells from human embryos in order to provide replacement tissues for people with a variety of diseases may be an exciting prospect, but it does not eliminate the fact tiny human beings have to be destroyed to do so, said Richard Land and Ben Mitchell.

"A good end does not justify evil means," Land and Mitchell wrote in a commentary. "Human embryos are ends in themselves, not means to other ends. Just as we would not countenance [the] harvesting of human organs from homeless persons without their consent, so we must not destroy human embryos even to obtain potentially life-saving cells.

"If nurtured and not destroyed, these embryos will develop into human infants. They are not potential human lives; they are human beings who are developing and growing."

Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Mitchell is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mitchell also is a consultant on biomedical and life issues for the ERLC.

Two teams of scientists working separately announced Nov. 5 they both had made the discovery, The Washington Post reported. The obtaining of stem cells from embryos has great potential, including the growth of tissues such as bone marrow for cancer patients and neurons for those with Alzheimer's disease, according to the Post.

The development renews the debate over such ethical and legal issues as cloning and genetic engineering, however, the Post reported. Included in the controversy is the four-year-old ban on federal funding of human embryo research. Advocates of stem cell research say the ban will slow the development of potentially life-saving therapies, according to the Post. Lawyers at the National Institutes of Health are seeking to determine whether the ban would affect federally funded research on stem cells that are the product of cells taken from embryos by privately funded scientists, according to the Post.

Meanwhile, one of the drafters of the funding ban said he had no intention of lifting it for stem cell research.

"Although those who would like to use public funds to research human embryos claim that they only use spare embryos that would 'just go to waste' if they are not used for research purposes, I do not believe there is such [a] thing as a 'spare' human being – a 'spare' child," said Rep. Jay Dickey, R.-Ark., in a written statement. "A human embryo is a human being and must be accorded the moral status of a person from the time of fertilization.

"The language of this ban prevents taxpayer funding for bizarre experiments, such as cloning. Eventually, I could see the embryonic stem cell technology going in this direction."

In their commentary, Land and Mitchell endorsed the retention of the funding ban. They also called for Congress to hold hearings soon to consider the formation of a national biotechnology commission to supervise and establish guidelines in this field. The panel would resemble the Atomic Energy Commission, a federal government body that regulated even private corporations in the development of atomic energy. Land and Mitchell also said international guidelines on biotechnology need to be put in place.

"As fire gives both heat and light and may burn those who touch it, so biotechnology has the potential to heal or kill," Land and Mitchell wrote. "The potential for pervasive human harm is too great not to establish such safeguards and accountability to the public's elected officials."

The patenting and licensing of human cell tissues to "limit their sale, use, and distribution" also is troubling, they wrote. The teams have licensed commercial rights to a California biotechnology firm, the Post reported.

"Human cells, tissues, and organs should not be commodities to be bought and sold in a biotech slave market," Land and Mitchell said. "Yet, the stem cells obtained from human embryos are now claimed as property to be disposed of at the will and for the profit of biotech corporations. Like auto parts and computer components, human cells have become mere means to economic ends."