Stem Cell Research
What are we to think of Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. (ACT) trumpeting its successful cloning of a human embryo? Is this a praiseworthy case of man's triumph over the biological mysteries - guaranteeing immeasurable cures for all diseases - or of society held captive by scientists bent on vainglory, financial reward, or the desire to vanquish human suffering at any cost?
In the midst of the debate over using embryonic stem cells in research, a more fundamental issue has often been overlooked. It is a reality that will not only affect the outcome of this debate, but of numerous moral quandaries in the days ahead. It is the issue of our moral culture--that is, how we think about and seek to resolve moral issues. Our moral culture is ultimately more significant than is a given moral issue because it directly influences the decisions that are made regarding all such issues.
Imagine hearing the following financial news; "Today, the market in sow bellies is down, soybeans are stable, and the market in human embryos is up." Recent developments in embryonic research have moved us one step closer to that scenario.
There is good news and there is bad news. First, the bad news. Confirming what we knew all along, scientists at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Virginia, do not think it is sufficient to do research on human embryos that are "going to die anyway," to follow the popular mantra. They announced 11 July 2001 that they intentionally created human embryos from donor eggs and sperm with the sole purpose of conducting destructive research on those nascent humans.
Unless there is a scientific discovery that removes the perceived need for embryonic stem cells, the debate over their use in research is not going away any time soon. Even though the Bush administration is poised to make a decision on federal funding of this research, it stands to reason that embryo research will, like abortion, be the next interminable controversy, albeit along very different battle lines--lines where economics is the unifying force for immoral policy.
Human cloning may soon become an accepted means of producing human embryonic stem cells for use in medical therapies. The Donaldson Report, released in August by a government advisory commission headed by Britain's Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson, sanctions the use of just such a practice. If passed by Parliament, Britain would likely become the first country in the world to explicitly permit the cloning of human embryos.
The National Institutes of Health Guidelines for Research Using Human Pluripotent Stem Cells contained no surprises for those who have been monitoring the development of those protocols. What some may find surprising is the relative ease with which NIH both appeals to a legal apparition and falls prey to several ethical fallacies.
Beyond the Impasse to What? Stem cell research may not need human embryos after all. But why are we researching in the first place?
The human embryonic stem cell debate has been at an impasse since the discovery of the unusual properties of unique precursor cells. In 1998 two teams of privately-funded researchers were able to isolate and culture stem cells from human embryos. Some scientists believe these cells may be used to treat and cure a number of diseases including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and other afflictions. The problem has been that in the process of harvesting the stem cells the embryos are necessarily destroyed.
Late last year, scientists in the U.S. succeeded in isolating and culturing stem cells from a variety of sources: embryos, aborted fetuses, and adults. Stem cells, which are the precursor cells that give rise to the 210 different kinds of tissue in the human body, are believed to have the potential to treat a host of diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, and cancer.
Dr. Shapiro, Members of the Commission, and Guests,
My name is Daniel McConchie, Operations Director for The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity located just north of here in Bannockburn, Illinois.