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
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
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
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
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
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
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.)