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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Clarifying the Stem Cell Debate

Since the death of President Reagan, President Bush has come under fresh attacks for his policy on embryonic stem-cell research. Notice I said embryonic stem-cell research. What you hear out of much of the media is that President Bush is against “stem-cell research.” They fail to mention that he is not against stem-cell research in general, only against research that destroys embryos. They also fail to mention that all the policy does, which was laid down by Bush almost three years ago, is ban the use of taxpayer dollars for research that destroys human embryos. Privately funded organizations are still free to do this type of research, and many are. The AP reported earlier this year that Harvard University plans to launch a multimillion-dollar center to grow and study human embryonic stem cells.

Many who are criticizing the President on this issue are basically accusing him of blindly following his “right wing” constituency and ignoring what “science” is telling us concerning stem cells. The President’s critics would have us believe that the debate over embryonic stem cells is all but over in the scientific community, and his policy is keeping us from the cure for everything from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s diseases. This is far from the truth.

A New England Journal of Medicine report published in March of this year states that embryonic stem cells often cause tumors in animal studies, and therefore using them in humans is highly problematic. Dr. Carlo Croce, MD, Director of the Kimmel Cancer Institute and Kimmel Cancer Center at the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, found that animal experiments show that serious cancer frequently develops when the animals received manipulated embryonic stem cells. Dr. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University has recently stated that embryonic stem cells are “surprisingly genetically unstable in mice and perhaps in humans as well.” Maureen L. Condic, an Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, states that “there are profound immunological issues associated with putting cells derived from one human being into the body of another. The same compromises and complications associated with organ transplant hold true for embryonic stem cells.”

The President’s critics are suspiciously silent about the alternatives to embryonic stem-cell research. Umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells are one such alternative. They are genetically younger than cloned embryonic stem cells, can be easily obtained, and are risk free. There are no ethical issues about their use because umbilical stem cells are a natural component of the blood in the afterbirth and would otherwise be regarded as part of the medical waste of childbirth. Also, in the last few years, tremendous progress has been made in the field of adult stem-cell research.

Hardly a serious biologists in the world would argue that life—whether human, dog, cat, or pig—does not begin at conception. Every living human being begins the same way: a sperm fertilizes an egg. The moment after conception, this one-celled, forty-six-chromosomed human being possesses everything it needs to grow into an adult human. A report from Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, 1981 reads: "Physicians, biologists and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being--a being is alive and is a member of the human species. There is overwhelming agreement on this point in countless medical, biological, and scientific writings."

Those for federally funded embryonic stem cell research also imply that those who believe that life begins at conception are in the vast minority. Current polls show nothing of the sort. According to a recent Harris poll, 47% of Americans believe life begins at conception. In a recent Fox News poll 55% believe the same, and a recent Newsweek poll shows that 58% consider a fertilized egg the beginning of human life. Even President Bush’s opponent in the fall, Senator Kerry, recently stated that he believes that life begins at conception.

Scientists are constantly making new medical advances in this generation. Advances in medicine and technology often involve “leaps into the unknown.” However, this should not occur at any price. To put a person on Mars, would we force the unwilling to risk their lives? In developing a new vaccine, would we test it on someone, say a child, who could not determine whether he or she wanted to assume the risks? Embryonic stem-cell research presents the same type of dilemma, and the answer should be the same: the end does not justify the means.

Copyright 2015, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World