Los Angeles Daily News | February 4, 2001
IT’S UNUSUAL that a scandal in an English hospital would command international notice, but the crimes of Dick Van Velzen are just sick enough to have captured the world's attention.The Dutch doctor, who was working in Liverpool, made headlines in papers on both sides of the Atlantic when the British government unearthed his morbid fascination. It turns out that Van Velzen had been harvesting the organs and body parts of dead children, newborn infants and fetuses -- without obtaining parental consent. He used some of his specimens for research, and saved many more for no apparent reason whatsoever.
More alarming was the accompanying revelation that Van Velzen was not alone in his practice of taking organs without permission. According to a British government report, some 100,000 human hearts, lungs and brains are kept for research purposes in hospitals and medical schools throughout England.
Internationally, the news has been greeted with shock and disgust. The gruesome thought of Dr. Van Velzen or anyone else keeping jars of baby parts in a hospital basement triggers instant revulsion.
As a society, we are good at recoiling at the terrors we can visualize. Our moral reflexes are less sharp, however, when brutality takes place at a level invisible to the naked eye.
Much closer to home, another sort of human harvesting has drawn far less in the way of public outrage. Unlike Van Velzen's brand of harvesting, the revolutionary practice of embryonic stem-cell research involves more than simply culling organs from the already dead -- it requires the deliberate destruction of human life.
And it's eligible for government funding - unless President Bush intervenes to stop it.
Stem cells are the undifferentiated "building blocks" of human tissue that are most abundant and versatile in the early stages of human life. When manipulated in a lab, they can be directed to become any sort of adult cell, which is why they offer so much promise to medical researchers.
Scientists are hopeful that through stem-cell research, they will be able to create reparative
therapies for all sorts of diseases, from diabetes to Alzheimer's.
But there's a hitch -- harvesting embryonic stem cells requires destroying the embryo.
That means destroying a very young human life.
It's tempting to ignore that reality -- and reap the benefits -- because, without the aid of high-powered equipment, we cannot actually see embryos. But we know their attributes. We know that they contain a unique genetic code -- an individual identity. We know that their traits are fully human. And we know that because they are dividing and growing, they are fully alive.
Although privately funded fetal and embryonic stem-cell research is legal, Congress banned federal funding for the practice in 1996.
But through one of his trademark legalistic dodges, President Clinton found a way to skirt the law. Last year, the Clinton administration ruled that researchers who experiment on embryonic stem cells could still receive federal funds -- as long as they contract out the task of destroying the embryos.
Now the future of that policy is up to Bush, who has expressed an interest in overturning it but has yet to deliver the necessary executive order.
Bush has endorsed a viable alternative to embryonic stem-cell research -- using "adult" stem cells that can be harvested harmlessly from placentas and umbilical cords. It's an idea that has received a cool reception in the scientific community, though, because embryonic stem cells are more malleable and easier to work with.
Recent developments suggest that in time, technological innovations will make adult stem-cell research more practical. Bush's burden is to convince the public that postponing "progress" while technology catches up is the necessary cost of protecting society's most sacred values.
His opponents will no doubt denounce that position as being anti-science and indifferent to public health. But the onward pace of modern medicine is meaningless if it's not grounded in a commitment to the Hippocratic principle of protecting life.
The scandals in London are a timely reminder that the ends do not always justify the means. Progress or not, taking from the bodies of dead children without their parents' permission violates society's sense of human dignity. It's an insult not only to the grieving families, but also to the dead -- an insult that cannot be rationalized by scientific promise.
That sort of human dignity rightfully belongs to all humanity -- not only the dead, but the unborn living, too.
(c) 2001 Los Angeles News Group
(Posted on FrontPageMagazine.com 2/6/01)