Moral dilemmas at the edges of life

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album