Embryonic stem cell research is a hot topic among pro-life advocates because it involves the destruction of human embryos in order to obtain the stem cells needed, according to Culture and Media Institute. Until recently, federal monies were not available for funding research. A consensus exists that that such embryos are alive, according to ReligiousTolerance.org. They contain human DNA and are thus human life. The controversy over embryonic stem cell research centers on whether human life in the form of an embryo less than two weeks after conception is also a human person. If it is a person, then extracting stem cells constitutes first degree murder. If it is not a person, then removing stem cells is morally acceptable.
According to the UK Times Online, Embryonic stem cells are the body’s master cells. They were first isolated from animal embryos by a British scientist, Sir Martin Evans, in 1981. The first human embryonic stem cells were derived in 1998 by an American team led by Jamie Thomson, and scientists say these cells have the potential to provide replacement tissue to treat all manner of disorders. Some embryos are also created especially for research, and stem cells are generally extracted after five days’ growth. As embryonic stem cells divide indefinitely, a single embryo could provide the raw material for a colony or “line” of cells for use in treatment. Not every embryo produces a viable line so dozens are needed. Tissue from aborted fetuses is not used in embryonic stem-cell research, though it is used in other approaches to stem-cell medicine.
According to ReligiousTolerance.org, stem cells are seen by many researchers as having virtually unlimited application in the treatment and cure of many human diseases and disorders including Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer, strokes, etc. Stem cells come in three general types:
--Embryonic stem cells are a primitive type of cell that can be coaxed into developing into all of the 220 types of cells found in the human body (e.g. blood cells, heart cells, brain cells, nerve cells, etc). In the past, they have always been derived from human embryos in a process that causes the death of the embryos. However, new research is developing techniques to convert skin cells into Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS cells) that emulate embryonic stem cells.
--Adult stem cells bear some similarities to embryonic stem cells. Research using adult cells has a two decade head start on embryonic stem cells. Thus, potential treatments have already advanced to human trial stage. Unfortunately, adult cells are limited in flexibility, and are only capable of developing into a few of the cell types.
--Induced pluripotent stem cells are specially treated ordinary cells -- e.g. skin cells -- that are specially processed to exhibit some of the properties of embryonic stem cells. Research in this area is just beginning. However the process seems to offer the advantages of embryonic stem cells without the ethical and rejection problems.
Many pro-lifers believe that human life, in the form of an ovum and spermatozoon, becomes a human person at the time of fertilization according to ReligiousTolerance.org. They view the killing of any embryo in order to extract its stem cells to be a form of homicide. They are generally opposed to such research. Others disagree. They believe that an embryo has the potential to develop into a person, but is not a person itself. They note that an embryo is not sentient; it has no brain, sensory organs, ability to think, memory, awareness of its surroundings, consciousness, internal organs, arms, legs, head, etc. They feel that research using stem cells derived from embryos is ethical.
According to CNN online, Embryonic stem cells are blank cells found in four- to five-day-old embryos, which have the ability to turn into any cell in the body. However, when stem cells are removed, the embryo is destroyed -- which has made this one of the most controversial medical research fields in the past decade. Federal research funds were prohibited for embryonic stem-cell research until August 2001, when Bush approved spending for research using only already-existing cell lines. Scientists later discovered that fewer than two dozen of those lines were useful for research, but abortion opponents opposed any legislation that would lift Bush's restrictions, and Bush twice vetoed congressional efforts to roll back his rules. President Obama recently loosened the restrictions, which many researchers and advocates have complained severely set back work toward curing disease such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes. Federal regulators have cleared the way for the first human trials of human embryonic stem-cell research using federal tax monies.
Are there any alternatives? According to the UK Times Online many types of adult stem cell are being used in medical therapies: last year scientists reported the transplant of a whole organ, a section of windpipe, grown from these. Adult stem cells, however, are partially specialized, and so cannot provide every kind of tissue. Another option is to reprogram adult skin cells by manipulating genes, so they acquire the versatile properties of embryonic stem cells. These “induced pluripotent” stem cells have great potential, but many hurdles remain before they are ready for human trials.
Let’s talk about what embryonic stem cell research entails. According to CBS News online, the embryos are created in a lab through artificial insemination of an egg, usually for the purposes of in vitro fertilization. If this pre-implantation embryo is not used for fertilization, it can be used to create a stem cell “line.” This takes place within six days of insemination. Perhaps ten of those cells out of a clump of about 200 are used to create a stem cell line, which then – and this is crucial – can exist, in theory, forever, since the cells continue to split in perpetuity. The problem is that every time cell divides, there is a chance it accumulates defects – it’s not always a perfect copy of itself. Lines created prior to 2001, with the theory that they can perpetually split in perpetuity, are losing efficacy of use.
Because private creation of stem cell lines has continued since Mr. Bush’s decision, there are now roughly 1,000 stem cell lines in existence, according to CBS News online. (The exact number is nearly impossible to determine.) President Obama’s action means that federal funding can go to research on these 1,000 lines. The National Institutes Of Health, which accepts applications for research grants involving embryonic stem cell research, sets guidelines for the ethical use of these lines – ensuring, for example, that they were created with the proper consents. Many, however, still feel that the government is standing in the way of the full benefits of stem cell research. That’s because of something called the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which was first introduced in 1996 and is reintroduced every year. Dickey-Wicker makes it illegal to use federal funds for research “in which human embryos are created, destroyed, discarded, or knowingly be subjected to risk of injury or death greater than allowed for research on fetuses in utero.” In other words, even though federal funding can now go to the study of existing stem cell lines, government-funded scientists cannot create new lines, because they cannot create or destroy embryos. Because of the potential uproar inherent in not reintroducing Dickey-Wicker – it’s part of the appropriations bill each year – it is unlikely that Congress will elect to abandon the amendment.
According to CBS News online, there have also been breakthroughs with adult stem cells, which can theoretically be transformed into embryonic form – something embryonic stem-cell research opponents say means there is no longer a need to harvest stem cells from embryos. But while the research is promising, embryonic stem cell research backers say the adult cells are not an adequate substitute, and that embryonic stem cells are “absolutely the gold standard” for research purposes.
According to Focus on the Family online, embryonic stem cell research and the cloning of human embryos for research require the destruction of tiny, living humans – violating the sanctity of human life. Every human, in every condition from the single cell stage of development to natural death, is made in God's image and possesses inestimable worth. Our human nature – not our size, level of development, environment or functional capacity – gives us worth and dignity as human beings. Therefore, devaluing and destroying the life of a human embryo opens the door to the devaluing and destroying any human life. In addition to the moral problems, scientific concerns abound with embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research is often touted as the most promising option because these cells are a "blank slate" capable of changing into all of the body's cell types. However, less well known is that many types of adult stem cells have the same ability – often referred to as pluripotency. And now, with the advent of iPS cells (adult body cells reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells), we have yet another source of flexible stem cells that do not require the destruction of young human life. Scientifically, embryonic stem cell research continues to hit research dead-ends. What was once hailed as the most promising option for curing a whole host of diseases (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes) has yet to yield any human clinical trials. In fact, the only consistent news about embryonic stem cell research is overly hyped exclamations about great "breakthroughs." The status of stem cell research is clear. Morally problematic, life destroying embryonic stem cell research is losing ground as a possible option for treating disease. But ethical, scientifically sound non-embryonic stem cell research is providing real therapies and basic research.
Embryonic stem cell research will continue to be a hot button issue for years to come, especially when federal tax dollars are at stake. No one has the right to end human life no matter how disguised the explanation or excuse. Those who pursue the destruction of even the most basic of human creation have stepped onto a slippery slope toward the denial of life.
Until next time. Let me know what you think.