Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/2/2009 (4859 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Hunger is not the usual motivation for cannibalism, although the survivors of the Donner Party in the United States in the 19th century and the survivors of the Andes plane crash in the 20th century all ate their dead so that they themselves might live. Canada has its own stories, most famously, perhaps, that of bush pilot Martin Hartwell, who in 1972 survived a plane crash that broke both his legs by eating the body of the dead nurse who had been his passenger.
Most cannibalism, however, is inspired by more particularly selfish motives. As practised by native North Americans, South Sea Islanders or Congolese tribeswomen, it is part of a ritual in which the diner hopes to acquire some of the qualities that he or she admires in a dined-on dead enemy.
Sometimes it is done out of pure spite -- New Zealand's Maoris, for example, liked to think of it as the ultimate insult to their enemies.
Always, however, cannibalism is a selfish thing. We like to think that we have grown past that stage of our cultural and culinary evolution, but in fact we have not. We just do our cannibalism in a different way today. We have simply refined it and made it even more horrible because it is no longer our enemies that we would chow down on, but our children.
We are talking here, of course, about the use of human embryos for stem-cell research, the growing of a human being as a sort of factory, a source of spare parts for those of us who have the extraordinary good fortune to be recognized and protected in law as actual "persons" with rights and freedoms and absolute custody of our bodily parts.
An embryo has no such rights. After an eight-year ban in the United States under the presidency of George W. Bush, embryonic stem-cell research is about to take off in that country.
One of the first acts of Barack Obama's presidency was to ask Congress to lift that ban. Hardly had Obama uttered those words than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a permit to the Geron Corp. of California to conduct an experimental study using embryonic stem cells on people who have recently suffered spinal-cord injuries that made them paraplegic.
It is not certain whether there is a genuine scientific factor that enters into this decision, or if it is just political and emotional.
Some scientists believe that embryonic stem cells are the best source for recreating organs or regenerating tissue, such as in spinal-cord injuries. Other scientists argue that stem cells from a person's own body or from the blood in the umbilical cords of newborn babies -- Canada has a program in place to harvest those stem cells -- are just as effective a research tool and, ultimately, a regenerative tool.
There is, unfortunately, no agreement between the two sides; science fails, so faiths fight.
What is clear is that no moral factor appears to enter into this equation on the part of President Obama, the FDA and the embryonic stem-cell researchers. They all cling to the fiction that because the law says that the fetus is not a person, embryos can be harvested at will and used for the comfort and convenience of legal people.
That is classic cannibalism -- consuming others for the strength it might give you.
That sounds harsh. One of the potential guinea pigs in the spinal-cord program put it bluntly -- he does not care about anything, he said, if it means that he can walk again.
Who among us can fault him for that? Who among us, if we had to sit in his wheelchair, could say with any confidence that we would react differently? It is the naturally selfish nature of the human being to use whatever means available to survive.
Embryonic stem-cell research is a particularly difficult question because it seems to promise so much, everything from regenerated spinal cords to cures for Parkinson's disease and the replacement of failing organs. All you have to do is create an embryo and then kill it.
The hard part comes in recognizing that while the embryo might not be a person in a legal sense, the cold truth is that, left uninterfered with, it will naturally become one. There is no qualitative change between the fertilized egg and the newborn baby -- one will naturally become the other unless we intervene.
I suppose we all want to live forever and have our health hold up that long. Embryonic stem-cell research seems to hold out that promise, eventually, ultimately. But in our haste to pursue that goal, the siren, but malignant, call of embryonic stem cells has drowned out the song of more benign research that might well accomplish the same thing at less cost to our souls. Immortality is not everything it is cracked up to be; no matter how often and at what price we can replace our parts, we still inevitably age. It's just a pity we don't get any wiser.