The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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March 23, 2001 Issue
Eye on the Capitol

Railroad, stem cell research take high toll

Chinese laborers and embryos both were sacrificed for society

By John Huebscher

In his book, Nothing Like it in the World, historian Stephen Ambrose tells the story of the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The project, began and completed in the 1860s, was a marvel of engineering, hard work, and determination.

The Civil War ended the question of whether the nation would divide between North and South. The transcontinental railroad ended the separation between East and West. The railroad was indispensable to the nation's economic growth after the Civil War and changed the U.S. for the better.

Ambrose makes clear that the project depended on backbreaking labor by thousands of workers. Indispensable to the efforts were thousands of Chinese workers. Their centuries of experience with repairing and maintaining the Great Wall and their knowledge of gunpowder suited them well for the dangerous work of digging and blasting the line for the Central Pacific across the Rocky Mountains.

Many Chinese workers died or suffered serious injury building the railroad. However, as Ambrose says, we don't know how many because railroads kept no records of deaths or injuries to Chinese. To the rail barons, the Chinese didn't count as persons so there was no need to worry about how many were sacrificed to complete the project.

The current discussion over the use of human embryos to obtain stem cells makes one wonder how much we have learned in 130 years.

Like the railroad, stem cell research holds enormous potential to improve the quality of life for many people. It also poses the same question: What human costs are we prepared to accept to make it happen?

Some argue there is no human cost. Like the Chinese workers of 135 years ago, these embryos don't register in the calculation. They lack the humanity of the people making the decisions. They aren't real people to those funding the research. In the words of a recent letter on the editorial page of The New York Times, such embryos are just "left over materials."

Of course, one can argue that there is a difference between an embryo and a Chinese man lost in the construction of the Central Pacific in the 1860s. But each was unique. Each came into being by the mystery of Divine Providence. Each had the potential for a full life if treated with the same dignity we demand for ourselves. And each was invisible to the public.

Perhaps the dangers of building the railroad were unavoidable. The same cannot be said for research that destroys developing human life. The benefits of embryonic stem cell research remain theoretical. At this point, the same life saving results appear just as feasible by using stem cells taken from adults, or umbilical cord blood. The deliberate destruction of life is not necessary.

Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and the other rail barons who sacrificed the lives of those Chinese laborers for the "greater good" a century ago were highly regarded as educated and enlightened men of their time, not unlike the scientists, administrators,and financial backers who tout stem cell research today. But they had a moral blind spot that prevented them from seeing the humanity of those they were sacrificing for their cause.

We should ask ourselves whether our vision is any better today.

(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)

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