Moral dilemmas at the edges of life

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The beginning, and the end, of life were once simple yet profound matters. Now they seem more complex by the day. Last week's recommendation that stem cells should be removed from embryos for medical research raised the issue once again of life's origins, and whether such actions involve the destruction of a human life. Then the revelation that anaesthetists want every brainstem-dead patient drugged before organs are removed for transplantation implied that the end of life may not be so clear either. Some doctors were concerned that these patients might otherwise feel pain. If they can do so, can they be dead? Have we been removing organs from those still alive?

The beginning, and the end, of life were once simple yet profound matters. Now they seem more complex by the day. Last week's recommendation that stem cells should be removed from embryos for medical research raised the issue once again of life's origins, and whether such actions involve the destruction of a human life. Then the revelation that anaesthetists want every brainstem-dead patient drugged before organs are removed for transplantation implied that the end of life may not be so clear either. Some doctors were concerned that these patients might otherwise feel pain. If they can do so, can they be dead? Have we been removing organs from those still alive?

Certainly we seem to have ventured upon a scientific superhighway. The Chief Medical Officer's committee has recommended that cells from embryos up to 14 days old may be used for research into new medical treatments and "therapeutic cloning", which involves the transfer of genes from one person into the nucleus of a cell taken from another. This would then be engineered to provide tissue for others, effectively making spare parts for the human body.

To those in favour of such experimentation, the embryo is always described as less than the size of a full stop, a clump of cells with no nervous system; they say it is not a sentient being. True: but is it not also human life, part of a continuum that leads to a fully formed human being? That is an ethical dilemma we cannot get away from. It causes an instinctive uneasiness about this latest medical advance.

But we must surely feel outrage too at the suffering of those with diseases such as Parkinson's, who endure ill health and loss of dignity, and put a strain upon their families. Man's ingenuity may well find a way, using these embryonic cells, to treat these illnesses. Rather than cheapening life by experimenting on a potential child, we would be trying to enrich it by improving the lot of the sick. Orwell was right: some are more equal than others - and for most of us, the person who counts higher is the sentient human being before us, not the potential one in the petri dish.

There is clearly an ethical debate which needs to be aired, and Parliament is the right place to have it. And if anything indicates how important it is to question issues of life and death as thoroughly as possible, however advantageous it may seem to make use of medical and scientific techniques, the anaesthetists' concern about the brainstem-dead is it.

For more than 20 years we have believed that a person with brainstem death was most definitely dead. Now doctors are telling us that these patients might still have a sensation of pain - and that could make the relatives of potential donors recoil from permitting organ removal. Of course, if embryo research goes ahead, it may well pave the way for organs to be grown, reducing the need for transplants. Our dilemma about the end of life may yet be solved by tackling the issue of its origins.

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