August 6, 2001
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George Bush II finds himself between a rock and a hard place (i.e., between the Pope and many of his conservative supporters, vs. 202 House members and over 60% of the American people) as he struggles to find a stance on funding embryonic stem cell research. Unfortunately, last week's Congressional ban on human cloning may give him an idea on where he'll stand.
The opposition is fueled by anti-abortion coalitions and religious groups who speak in language such as "taking a human life" (Rep. J.C. Watts) and "the killing of innocent human creatures" (Pope John Paul II), attempting to opine for the people who haven't a clue as to what stem cells are or where they come from (1) that research on them must be banned on moral grounds.
On the other side rests the research community and patient advocacy groups for diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and spinal cord injuries, who recognize the potential benefit of being able to grow new brain, heart, pancreas and nerve cells to replace diseased ones. In the middle rests a hundred thousand frozen blastocytes, leftover days-old embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics, whose "right to life" in liquid nitrogen may ultimately override their use in medical research. Much scientific and bioethical debate has taken place to propose scenarios in which stem cell research can take place under carefully thought-out guidelines and regulations. Examples include restricting the sale of human embryos and requirement for parental consent to extract stem cells from unwanted frozen embryos, aborted fetuses or infant cadavers, as well as strict oversight of such research.
Yet politicians will most likely continue to justify prohibiting the unexplored potentials of stem cells and cloning because they are afraid of sliding down some vague and scary "slippery slope" in which women will be making a living by selling their eggs and having abortions and who knows what other bad things could happen. Not a very creative approach, and certainly not one that puts any confidence in the medical and scientific community's ability to do the right thing. This is a matter of morality, so it must be legislated.
Is it better or moral or more respectful to preserve a potential life in liquid nitrogen for eternity than to use it for research? And if the answer is yes, can the embryos ever be discarded? These questions will not be answered by an ongoing debate between opponents and supporters of stem cell research. It comes down to science vs. beliefs, with no compromise to be found. We either try it with thoughtfully planned and carefully controlled research to see if indeed the therapeutic benefit of stem cells exists. Or we impose laws against it, knowing that it could take scientists and philosophers millennia to prove when life begins, and we'll revisit the debate at that time...
In the meantime, is it better or moral or respectful to expend more energy protecting the rights of frozen potential babies than ensuring that live babies have food and shelter and health care and an education? This is one debate that Congress will not be likely to take on. They know the answer, and they would have to do something with it. Touting the high road that it is morally wrong to use frozen embryos for research while allowing millions of living children to grow up in the face of poverty and hunger, well, it just doesn't square.
Medical research is at an amazing place in history with the unraveling of the human genome and the increased understanding of genetic links to diseases, and an ever-increasing understanding of human physiology. Stem cell research and the integrity of those who conduct it should be given a chance, and not thwarted by those who believe they have the moral and ethical truth to prevent it.
1. Embryonic stem cell: A few days after an egg is fertilized, a hollow sphere of cells called a blastocyte is formed. The outer layer of the cells eventually forms the placenta; the inner cell mass, stem cells, give rise to all of the tissues of the body and therefore are called "pluripotent." As they divide and become specialized to form specific tissues, they become "multipotent" stem cells. Some will become blood stem cells that will form blood; others will become skin stem cells that form skin, etc.
Adult stem cell:
Adults have only multipotent stem cells, for example, blood stem cells can be extracted from the bone marrow. Adult stem cells hold promise for research but there are more limitations than with embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells have not been isolated for all types of tissue, they are present in very small quantities and are difficult to isolate, and they may decrease with age. (back)
Jan Baughman is a scientist in the Biotech Industry. When Jan does not travel around the world on behalf of the company where she manages a clinical research department, she spends most of her time devouring books like candies and relaxing over the preparation of the finest recipes in Northern California. She started writing at a very young age when she found this mode of expression easier than having to answer the perpetually boring and conservative chit-chat around her. Jan's sense of observation is directly related to her sense of humor. She is a founding member and co-editor of Swans, and brings to the site wit and a lightness of being.
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Related External Links
National Institutes of Health Primer on Stem Cells
National Bioethics Advisory Committee Recommendations on Stem Cell Research
This Week's Internal Links
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Other commentaries by Jan Baughman
Living with Necromimesis (1/30/97)
Let 'em Eat Kale (11/21/99)
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One More Clone Perspective (2/27/97)
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