Thursday, December 14, 2006

Breaking the Romance with Embryonic Stem-Cell Research

The Following comes from the online journal Kairos.

Many were stunned when on July 29, 2005, the United States Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, who is also a medical doctor, announced that he opposed President Bush’s policy on restricting embryonic stem-cell research. In a floor speech before the Senate, he argued that scientists should be able to capitalize upon the “truly magnificent, truly remarkable properties” of embryonic stem cells. 1 The trend is clear: politicians with a pro-life history, from Orrin Hatch to Frist, are dazzled by the potential of embryonic stem cells. This issue is not going away. The fight for embryos remains a fight for life and Eric Pavlat, a pro-life Democrat, has compiled several arguments worth embracing as the debate rages.
  • Embryonic stem cells are human. This is the most contested and the most important reason to oppose embryonic stem-cell research. The question of when life begins, however, is not debated in the embryology textbooks. According to Langman’s Medical Embryology, Patten’s Foundations of Embryology, and The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, life begins at the moment of conception.2 Accordingly, Christians should understand that their fundamental problem with embryonic stem-cell research is the destruction of a human life.3 Even if this were not the case, there are other reasons to shy away from such research.
  • Adult stem-cell research has a proven track record.4 Adult stem cells are showing themselves more powerful than first thought. In other words, adult stem cells have successfully developed into nerve, brain, and heart tissue, the type of change once thought possible only by embryonic stem cells. Furthermore, adult stem-cell research has already led to the successful treatment or cure of over 70 diseases or conditions.5 Meanwhile, embronyic stem-cell research has still neither cured nor treated a single disease or medical condition.6
  • Cures from embryonic stem-cell research are not guaranteed. As professor Lord Robert Winston so candidly put it, “I am not entirely convinced that embryonic stem cells will, in my lifetime, and possibly anyone’s lifetime for that matter, be holding quite the promise that we desperately hope they will.”7 This is especially true for Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. T. John Martin, University of Melbourne, said, “Alzheimer’s is a global condition of the brain and its causes are unknown . . . It is virtually impossible to conceive that any form of cell therapy could be helpful. . .”8 So why is Alzheimer’s regularly held up as the poster child for embryonic stem-cell research? According to Ronald McKay of the National Institutes of Health, “People need a fairy tale.”9 Promises made by advocates for embryonic stem-cell research do not align with reality.
  • The majority of Americans are opposed to federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. This is not the impression one often hears. However, when the poll questions are asked carefully (e.g., when surveys explicitly mention the destruction of embryos) public support falls dramatically. In May of 2006, only 39 percent reported they supported federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. 48 percent were opposed. Meanwhile, 81 percent of Americans opposed cloning human embryos to destroy them for research.10 This last statistic is important because it is not true that embryonic stem-cell research simply uses up “leftover” embryos from in vitro fertilization. Researchers prefer cloned embryos, since these cells are supposedly less likely to be rejected by the tissue of a patient.11

Ethically speaking, embryonic stem-cell research is unacceptable. Pragmatically and politically speaking, it is unwise. Given the success of adult stem-cell research, the bleak future of embryonic stem-cell research,12 and the overall lack of support for cloning and destroying human embryos, one would hope (and Christians must pray) that the policymakers of this generation would chart a course for medical research that does not include the destruction of life. Until then, these are the arguments to be marshaled.

Footnotes :
1 Ceci Connolly, “Frist Breaks with Bush on Stem Cell Research,” Washington Post, July 30, 2005, (accessed December 12, 2006).
2 Eric Pavlat, “How to Talk to Democrats about Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” Crisis 24 (September, 2006): 13, (accessed December 12, 2006
3 See Kairos Journal article,
“When Embryos Are ‘Hatched’: The Moral Status of Embryo Location.”
4 See Kairos Journal article, “Embryonic Stem-Cell Research—Hype or Hope?”
5 Pavlat, 11.
6 Ibid., 12.
7 Ibid., 13.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 “New Poll: Americans Continue to Oppose Funding Stem Cell Research That Destroys Human Embryos,” United States Council of Catholic Bishops Website, May 31, 2006, (accessed December 12, 2006). Poll conducted by International Communications Research.
11 Pavlat, 13. See Kairos Journal article,
“New Jersey’s Clone-and-Kill Bill.” However, there is still a risk of the host rejecting even cloned cells. See David A. Prentice, “Stem Cells and Cloning,” Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics Website, (accessed December 12, 2006).
12 See Kairos Journal Quick-Take,
“The Greatest Stem-Cell Story Never Told.”

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