Stem-cell research- Don't compromise morality

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Proponents of embryonic stem-cell research, exploiting the occasion of President Ronald Reagan's death, suggest that this ethically challenged work should be pursued in his memory.

Recent articles on this issue have been misleading and incomplete.

Under the right conditions, stem cells - the basic building blocks for cellular development of our bodies - can grow into many different cell types.

Scientists hope to use stem cells to create new specialized cells for transplanting into patients to repair or replace tissues damaged by disease.

But all stem cells are not equal, and the difference between two types is an important distinction that largely has been ignored.

Embryonic stem cells are harvested from living human embryos by extracting the inner cell mass from the center of a five-day old embryo at the blastocyst stage of development. This tiny cluster of cells is a self-developing entity, so it is living; and it has a complete human genetic code, so it is human. Harvesting these cells destroys the living human embryo.

Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are isolated from various sources already present within our own bodies. Harvesting adult stem cells does not destroy life.

Although proponents of embryonic stem-cell research claim that these cells are more promising than adult stem cells, the evidence does not support their claims.

To date, the experiments with embryonic stem cells have produced no successful treatments. In fact, because embryonic stem cells are so difficult to control, they have proven dangerous and life-threatening in human experimentation.

On the other hand, the list of successes using adult stem cells grows daily.

Perhaps the most significant ethical issue raised by stem-cell research involves the creation and destruction of human embryos for research purposes. This problem reaches its most extreme form when scientists clone human embryos using a technology called somatic cell nuclear transfer, a technology first used to create Dolly the sheep. The result is biologically indistinguishable from embryos created through sexual reproduction.

Since public opinion overwhelmingly opposes human cloning, proponents have confused the issue with terminology. They use the term "reproductive cloning" when this new life is implanted in the womb and brought to birth, but they call it "therapeutic cloning" when it is destroyed to harvest cells.

Therapeutic cloning amounts to creating human life for the sole purpose of destroying it.

The biotech industry hopes to profit eventually from embryonic stem-cell research by patenting cell lines and cloned embryos and collecting royalties each time researchers use a copy of the patented embryo or cell line.

The powerful Biotechnology Industry Organization has led a vigorous campaign opposing a federal law to ban the patenting of human beings.

It is untrue that pro-life people oppose stem-cell research. Missouri Right to Life enthusiastically supports adult stem-cell research, which does not require destroying life to pursue the promise of medical enterprise.

The stem-cell debate is complicated and challenging to understand. The biotech industry exacerbates that complexity with confusing terminology and misinformation. They would create a subcategory of human life to be destroyed for profit and false promises of medical advances.

We must not allow human life to be treated as if it were a commodity for sale.

Pam Fichter is president of Missouri Right to Life. This column originallly appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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