President Bush's recent decision regarding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has charged a national debate on the practical and moral implications of such research. The stem cell issue is so complex that it is difficult for the average person to fully grasp all of the details, but the debate over stem cells will have implications reaching far beyond the obvious.
The media debate is framed so it appears to be a simple choice between using leftover embryos for research or discarding them, and using federal tax monies to fund this research. Who could argue with research to help those suffering with degenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, and diabetes? There are so many people fighting these tragic disabilities that the promise of healing offered by this research is a poignant argument in favor of pursuing the technology.
However, there are additional questions that need to be answered. Are embryos (fertilized human eggs) the only or the best source of stem cells? If embryos are the best source, will discarded embryos be enough or will laboratories mass-produce to support their research? When does life begin: at conception, at the womb, or at birth? Are the potential benefits of the research worth opening the inevitable Pandora's box? These questions should be addressed before we step on the slippery slope from which there is no turning back. But there's just one problem, we may already be moving down the slope.
Why Stem Cells?
Scientists studying degenerative diseases are excited about stem cell research because they hope to implant these baby cells into damaged tissues and spur them to grow into new, healthy cells. Stem cells seem promising because a single cell has the potential to develop into any of 210 different types of human tissue. As in the case of an embryo, one cell divides into many and these cells begin to specialize, forming the different organs and tissues in the developing baby. Adults and children also have stem cells, which respond to a special signal protein produced by damaged cells. These stem cells are rushed to the site and reproduce to repair the damage.
Embryonic cells are not the only source for acquiring stem cells. Stem cells have been harvested from adult bone marrow,1 fatty tissue,2 and umbilical cord blood. 3 Stem cell research is still in its earliest stages, and at this point it is believed that adult stem cells are only able to change into a limited number of types of human tissues. For example, tests on mice demonstrate that stem cells from the adult brains of mice can be nurtured into heart, liver and muscle tissues. Other experiments show that umbilical cord blood can be made to grow into brain cells.4 Researchers believe that because embryonic stem cells are more versatile in their ability to grow into virtually any of the 210 varieties of cells, they offer a greater potential for success.5
Because the process of extracting stem cells from embryos results in the destruction of the embryo, pro-life advocates have opposed the procedure, as well as the even more controversial use of aborted fetuses as a stem cell source.6
Although there may be some limitations in the versatility of using the stem cells collected from bone marrow, fatty tissue, and umbilical cord blood, the prospects are good and do not present the type of moral and ethical issues that embryonic research does. Research has only just begun to scratch the surface in this area of science, and it is yet to be seen if the arguments for the superiority of embryonic stem cells will hold up.
What is not mentioned in the federal funding debate is that the research is already underway in privately funded laboratories. In these laboratories there are no doubts about forging ahead with the research. Not only are they experimenting with surplus embryos from fertility clinics, they are also creating embryos for the sole purpose of research. 7 For this very reason, some members of Congress have advocated federal funding as a means of setting standards and controls on the process.8
When Does Life Begin?
The debate in Congress over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has also wandered into some very sticky questions trying to determine when life begins. Some pro-life congressmen have gone on record as saying that embryos created in the laboratory do not qualify as a human life until they are implanted in the uterus. They conclude that frozen embryos and those being grown in petri dishes are therefore acceptable for research. Others agree with Pope John Paul II, maintaining that if an embryo has the potential to develop into a human it should be protected.9 Yet another view is that because an embryo can still split into two or more separate individuals up until 14 days in the womb that it cannot have a soul during that time.10 If aborted fetuses are made available to researchers, does this imply that life begins at birth?
One of the drawbacks to transplanting stem cells is the same as with any transplant procedure: how can you prevent the immune system from rejecting it? Drawing the stem cell from cloned human embryos seems like an obvious solution, but opens a whole new can of worms as to whether to allow human cloning for this purpose.11 And if it is acceptable in this case, why not allow it for reproductive purposes? The plethora of arguments are staggering! Where do we draw the line?
The Slippery Slope
The fact that there is no clear-cut line should raise warning flags. Similar issues in the past have followed the slippery slope model. For example, when abortion was first discussed, proponents argued that it should be allowed in cases where the health of the mother is endangered or if the woman is a victim of rape or incest. Next it changed to a woman's right to choose what to do with her own body. Finally it became "abortion on demand" at any time for any reason, including the abortion of last trimester babies, fully capable of surviving on their own. The next step down the ladder in the destruction of life is the euthanasia of the elderly and infirm, followed by quality of life decisions. It is only a matter of time before the weak or politically incorrect are defined as subhuman and eliminated. This is exactly what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany. The Netherlands leads the world in legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide. How long before others follow? History shows that once a nation has stepped onto a slippery moral slope, it never recovers and many innocent people are killed even though the initial step had a noble reason.
Blessing or Curse?
The politicians and the scientific community may be overly optimistic about the potential benefits of biotech therapies. A similar debate in the German government prompted one researcher to set the record straight. Oliver Bristle told a German newspaper, "I consider it preposterous to make arguments based on the hopes of patients who are suffering from illnesses in order to get their way politically." He also said that some of the promises of cures were "not serious," and that it would take five to ten years of research to verify the viability of such treatments.12
In the area of human cloning, scientists responsible for the successful cloning of the sheep, Dolly, told reporters that the idea of cloning human beings with these same techniques is "dangerous and irresponsible," and the resulting babies likely would die early or suffer numerous abnormalities.
Rudolf Jaenisch and Ian Wilmut said in an article in Science magazine, procedures that have been used in cloning animals yield a very low percentage of viable embryos, and many of these die soon after birth. "Any human baby who survives may experience respiratory, circulatory, immune, kidney and brain abnormalities, and evidence is beginning to suggest other developmental and genetic defects,"13 they said.
Even more disturbing results were reported in The New England Journal of Medicine . A study, aimed at treating Parkinson's disease patients with stem cells, not only failed to produce the desired benefits, but also produced disastrous side effects. In about 15 percent of the patients the implanted stem cell began growing too rapidly, causing the patients to writhe and twist, jerk their heads, and fling their arms about uncontrollably. Dr. Paul E. Greene, a neurologist, describing the patients as follows: "They chew constantly, their fingers go up and down, their wrists flex and distend." 14 One of the test subjects was so badly affected that he had to be fed intravenously. Another suffered intermittent attacks of the condition making his speech unintelligible.
Tragically, there was no way to undo the procedure since the stem cells could not be removed. Dr. Greene lamented, "It was tragic, catastrophic. It's a real nightmare. And we can't selectively turn it off." His recommendation in the report called for no more fetal transplants. "We are absolutely and adamantly convinced that this should be considered for research only. And whether it should be research in people is an open question."15
Stem cell research will most certainly continue with both federal (with President Bush's restrictions) and private funding. Not only will the research go on, but the debate regarding the moral and ethical questions will persist as well, relentlessly eroding the limits set by well-intentioned proponents.
The field of biological engineering is in its infancy and has forced society to address questions for which there are no simple answers. If we allow embryos to be destroyed for the greater good, then why waste aborted fetuses when they can be used for research? If we allow cloning to achieve a perfect match for donor cells, then why not allow it for reproductive purposes? If these forms of human life are destined to die anyway and can save another life, then why not harvest organs from death row inmates like the Chinese do? Where do we ultimately draw the line?
Science does not have the answer; it is supposed to be amoral. Politicians do not have the answer; their opinions sway with public opinion. And society at large does not have the answer; it does not have enough information.
As the nation grapples with the use of human embryos, scientists in Los Angeles and Massachusetts may bring a new twist: they are working on ways to coax unfertilized eggs to grow into embryos that produce stem cells - without sperm and, therefore, without conception.16 Would this embryo be considered a human being? Scientists have known for nearly a century that an egg cell, with the right chemical or electrical stimulus, will begin dividing into an embryo on its own. The process is known as parthogenesis, first discovered in sea urchins. In mice, parthogenesis has successfully produced embryos that matured long enough to grow stem cells before self-destructing.
The Biblical implications of all these possibilities are also provocative: Will genetic manipulation lead to the "miry clay" people of Daniel 2:43? Is there a parallel with the races of the Rephaim or Nephilim in the Old Testament records? We will explore these possibilities in subsequent articles.