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Embryo Research and Gender-Based Abortions

from the December 06, 2011 eNews issue

Researchers at King's College London have developed high-grade embryonic stem cell lines during the past decade, and they announced on Monday that they would be placing two cell lines in the UK Stem Cell Bank (UKSCB) for use in clinical research. These cells are unique because they have been grown "xeno-free" - minus any animal products - so that they can be used for embryonic stem cell treatments on humans. The UKSCB has 90 stem cell lines that are graded high enough for research, but these will be the first xeno-free, clinical grade cell lines in the bank.  Many scientists believe that embryonic stem cell therapy holds the key for curing spinal cord injuries and regenerating damaged organs, but even the man who cloned Dolly the sheep recognizes the practical problems inherent in embryonic stem cell research.   High grade stem cell lines may be available for use, but there are other working therapies that avoid the ethical and moral issues involved in experimenting on human life.

Individual human embryonic stem cells do not live forever, but they can be reproduced in the laboratory for years. It will likely be 2014 before the UKSCB cells could be used for licensed treatments, but the cell lines will still be available. 

Stem cells are the undifferentiated cells that have the ability to turn into any of the other cells in the body. From one fertilized egg will eventually grow nerve cells and liver cells, blood cells and bone cells. The cells in the embryo have to have the freedom to morph into any one of these cells, according to the genes being expressed at any particular time and location in development.  There has been hope, therefore, that these rapidly multiplying anything-goes cells can be planted into damaged tissue and generate fresh healthy cells in place of those that have been damaged or missing..  

While es cell research has sounded promising, there have been a multitude of problems associated with it;  the es cells multiply rapidly and often cause tumors; the immune system can reject the cells as foreign.   There are also obviously major ethical and moral issues involved in developing embryos to be destroyed, or in experimenting on human life at any stage of development. They may be only a few cells in size, but these embryos have the potential to develop into fully formed babies if implanted in a woman's womb. They are human life, and there are serious ethical and moral concerns in experimenting on human life at any stage of development. Human life, whether at the eight-cell stage or at the 95-year-old stage, should be treated with respect.

Despite these matters, promoters have pointed to the great potential of embryonic stem cells to treat degenerative diseases and severe injuries, and they complain that es therapies could ease the suffering of many. Stem cells do not exist only in embryos, however. Adult fat tissue and bone marrow and even teeth dentine contains stem cells. Adult stem cell therapies have shown to work without the dangerous side effects – tumors and rejection – that have been common with embryonic stem cell therapies.

Ian Wilmut, made famous by his feat of cloning Dolly the sheep, spoke to stem cell scientists in La Jolla, California last month, discouraging them from pursuing embryonic stem cell research. He reminded them of the practical problems with es cells, and he recommended that stem cell research focus on direct programming, which convinces one kind of cell to become another kind of cell without having to revert it to a pluripotent stem cell state.

Human life is also valuable whether it comes in the form of a male or a female, with dark skin or light. The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) went before the House Judiciary Committee Constitution Subcommittee on December 6. The bill would make it illegal to perform, coerce or finance an abortion because the fetus is of an unwanted race or gender. The bill would not allow for the mother to be prosecuted, but it would apply to others involved in promoting an abortion that targets the unborn based on race or sex.

"Sex-selection abortions are occurring in the U.S.," said Steve Mosher of the Population Research Institute. "For example, there are unusually high percentages of boys being born to Asian-American families, suggesting that some unborn girls are being eliminated in utero."

"The Supreme Court has made it clear that States have a compelling interest in eliminating discrimination against women and minorities, " the Alliance Defense Fund's Steve Aden said to the committee. He continued, "H.R. 3541 is conceived and drafted pursuant to sound constitutional authority and the best tradition of this nation's commitment to civil rights and equality for all of its citizens."

Whether a law like this could be enforced is problematic.  Prosecutors would have to prove that the intent behind the abortion was racist or gender-biased, and the intentions of the heart is a dangerous thing to try to police.  However, the law does make a statement, one with which most American would agree.  According to a 2006 Zogby International poll, 86 percent of Americans would support a ban on sex-selection-based abortion. Not all Americans would outlaw abortion altogether, but there is a recognition that killing an unborn child simply because an ultrasound showed the fetus to be the "wrong" gender is immoral and wrong.  

Technically, "When does life begin?" is a silly question to ask. An egg and a sperm are both alive, after all. The question, "When does human life begin?" is also silly. When a human sperm fertilizes a human egg, then a new human individual is formed. The zygote is not a cow or a dog or a fish. It is a human.

Whether an unborn child is a legal "person" is a worthy question for attorneys to hash out, but it hardly touches the true heart of the issue. The true issue is, "When is it ‘murder' to kill human life?" Should it not be considered murder until after the child is born? Is it murder after eight of gestation, when the fetus has all its little parts, or only after the fetus is viable outside the womb? Is it murder if an embryo is simply a cluster of eight or sixteen cells? Is it murder to purposely destroy a fertilized egg?

When is it wrong? That's the real question. Obviously the unborn human is alive, else we would not be arguing over when it's okay to kill it.


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