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Framework #3: Medical Benefits

This brings us to the third framework: the medical benefits framework. Few people doubt that hES cell research offers tremendous promise for medical advance. For many, this promise serves as the framing consideration within which all other concerns related to stem cell research must be considered. In contrast to the other two, this framework begins by developing a positive vision for the future and then works back to the present situation asking: in what way can biomedical science help us actively bring about that future?

Here the orienting bioethical principle is “beneficence,” or “doing good.” This principle holds that we are morally obligated to pursue the good. Stem cell research appears to be a way of doing good; human embryonic stem cells have the potential for regenerating human organs and other tissue, if not immediately at least in the future. Moreover, the promise of regenerative medicine is currently based upon a theory with considerable experimental corroboration; the promise of stem cell medicine is realistic. Relief of human suffering, the lengthening of lives with improved health, and overall advances in human flourishing are taken as compelling by those who advocate from this framework. These considerations are used to frame all other concerns.

The ancient Greek, Hypocrites, said, “benefit and do not harm.” This is the first formulation of both beneficence and nonmaleficence. Those who advocate the medical benefits framework embrace both. However, they understand these two principles as standing in a particular relationship to one another. Beneficence takes precedence. Beneficence provides an orienting vision that calls us to actively engage in pursuit of human betterment. Of course this vision cannot be pursued by any means. Indeed, some means may come into conflict with the vision itself. Here the principle of nonmaleficence can make such conflicts visible. In doing so it serves to focus attention back onto the positive ethical vision.

This ordering of beneficence and nonmaleficence is exemplified by Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke -37). The actions of the priest and Levite in Jesus’ story were oriented by the principle of nonmaleficence: they did not do any additional harm to the already beaten and suffering man on the side of the road. They simply passed by on the other side. The actions of the Samaritan, by contrast, were oriented by beneficence: he pursued an opportunity to be of help. The Samaritan went out of his way to provide medical services and nurse the suffering man back to health. This tells us why so many Christian hospitals are named “Good Samaritan Hospital.”

Christians who vigorously support stem cell research out of a medical benefits framework are sharply critical of those who would shut it down. The number of persons now living and yet to be born whose lives could be saved or improved by regenerative medicine number in the millions, perhaps hundreds of millions. Any delays in the progress of this research could be measured in the numbers of persons who will not benefit from stem cell research. As those who operate in the embryo protection framework call supporters of stem cell research to account for the moral status of the embryo, in a similar way those who operate within the medical benefits framework call those oppose stem cell research to account for lives lost by not pursuing this research. For those who hold the medical benefits framework, to retard or prevent stem cell research from going forward, even on the basis of the ethical principle of nonmaleficence, risks “passing by on the other side.” It risks failure to love one’s neighbors.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Gaymon Bennett, Karen Lebacqz and Ted Peters

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