Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly and now a would-be cloner of human embryos wants to experiment on dying people. Rather than go through the usual process of animal studies to test efficacy and safety, he wants to switch quickly to conducting embryonic stem cell experiments upon dying people on the basis that the experiments would be “high risk but high gain” procedures.
This has a certain surface attraction. After all, if people are dying, what’s the harm? Well the harm could be substantial. First, unlike some experimental cancer treatments carried out on those dying of late stage disease to see if they can gain extra time, embryonic stem cells have not proven themselves to be “high gain” in animal studies yet. Therefore, it cannot be said whether or to what extent they would offer any real hope at all to the patient.
Second, it is quite possible if things go wrong, that they could increase the patient’s suffering, perhaps causing brain cancer as one example mentioned in the story.
Third, we could fall headlong into the trap of looking upon our dying as so many guinea pigs, furthering the dehumanization that seems to go hand-in-hand with therapeutic cloning and ESCR research. Moreover, such a scheme would seem to violate agreed upon protocols for human medical experimentation.
Fourth, if the dying will not be with us for long enough to really test the procedures, who would be next on Wilmut’s list? Those in persistent vegetative states? How about quadriplegics who would rather risk a brain tumor than live paralyzed? Once we begin down that road, we enter very dangerous territory.
Dying people are not dead: They are living. And they should be treated as fully equal and included members of the community. Using them in place of lab rats and potentially causing them great harm does quite the opposite, unless there is at least some realistic potential for therapeutic gain.