Stem Cell Debate

Stem Cell Research. Those three words paint an emotional picture for most people. The reason is simple. Stem Cells have the potential to cure some of the most devastating conditions, diseases and injuries. Everything from Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease to spinal cord injuries are potential candidates for the promise of this research. Where these stem cell originate is what causes the most debate. Stem Cells can be harvested for amniotic fluid, umbilical cord blood, adults cells, placentas and even mouse skin cells. Or they can be harvested from Human Embryos, and there’s the rub.

Most people don’t have an objection to the use of Stem Cells from any of the other sources, but opinion polls show a divided public about using Human Embryos as the source of Stem Cell Research. On one end of the scale is the mostly Religious belief that Human Embryos are just that, Human from the time of conception. On the other end are those who believe that an Embryonic Stem Cell is not yet a Human Being and therefore Science should be able to use these microscopic cells for research. President Bush has taken the former view, while Congress has taken the later view.

Recently, Congress passed and the President vetoed legislation which would have allowed Federal Funding for Human Embryo Stem Cell Research. President Bush explained has reason for the veto in a White House Speech. It is important to note the following quote from a press release of his speech. (Full Text here)

“In 2001, I announced a policy to advance stem cell research in a way that is ambitious, ethical, and effective. I became the first President to make federal funds available for embryonic stem cell research — and my policy did this in ways that would not encourage the destruction of embryos. Since then, my administration has made more than $130 million available for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos that had already been destroyed. We’ve provided more than $3 billion for research on all forms of stem cells — including those from adult and other non-embryonic sources.”

It should also be pointed out that there is no prohibition on the use of Private Funding for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Research facilities are free to fund Embryonic Stem Cell Research at will. However, the Legislation Congress sent to the White House would have allowed unlimited use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells in federally funded programs. In the same speech, President Bush explained his opposition to the Legislation in these terms.

“Congress has sent me a bill that would overturn this policy. If this legislation became law, it would compel American taxpayers — for the first time in our history — to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos. I made it clear to Congress and to the American people that I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line. Last year, Congress passed a similar bill — I kept my promise by vetoing it. And today I’m keeping my word again: I am vetoing the bill that Congress has sent.”

President Bush has taken the position that to destroy Human Embryos, which he considers a Human Life, in the hope of saving a human life to be unethical. His position is further strengthened because as I pointed out earlier, there are other options for Stem Cell Research which do not involve destruction of a Human Embryo.

Meanwhile the backers of the Congressional Legislation, mainly Democrats, have made some very emotional and somewhat misleading claims in defense of the Legislation. For instance in Sunday’s on-line edition of the Boston Globe Jeff Jacoby’s article Science, ideology, and stem cells (Registration Required) quotes several leading democrats.

“With one pen stroke,” charged Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, “President Bush has ignored hard science, embraced misplaced ideology, and turned his back on the millions who stand to benefit from . . . stem cell research.”

Similarly, Senate majority leader Harry Reid blasted Bush for “putting the politics of his narrow ideology ahead of saving lives.”

So did Senator Hillary Clinton: “This is just one example of how the president puts ideology before science.”

And Senator Barack Obama: “The promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.”

John Edwards criticized the President’s position when in October 2004 he is quoted as having said If John Kerry becomes president, Christopher Reeve will walk again.

As that article points out Ideology is the common thread of these Bush critics. As I see this problem, the solution is somewhere in the middle between pure scientific pursuit and ideological belief. Unlimited use of embryonic stem cells for research is a slippery slope. This point was eloquently made by Charles Krauthammer in January of this year at Real Clear Politics in an article titled Stem Cell Miracle?

“You don’t need religion to tremble at the thought of unrestricted embryo research. You simply have to have a healthy respect for the human capacity for doing evil in pursuit of the good. Once we have taken the position of many stem cell advocates that embryos are discardable tissue with no more intrinsic value than a hangnail or an appendix, then all barriers are down. What is to prevent us from producing not just tissues and organs, but human-like organisms for preservation as a source of future body parts on demand?”

Charles Krauthammer is a physician, columnist and Fox News Contributor. He is also one of the persons who has a possible personal stake in Stem Cell Research because he was paralyzed in a diving accident during his first year of Harvard Medical School.

I assume that at some point between conception and birth, we can agree that the embryo becomes a Human Being, and therefore ethically at this point we are destroying a Human Life. But where we place this ethical line is the reason unlimited and unrestricted embryo research becomes a sticky question and slippery slope. Many including Dr. Krauthammer believe 200 cell embryos slated for destruction don’t cross this ethical line and therefore should be available for scientific research. Since private funding is already allowed for this type of tissue, where should Congress and the President place the line for Federal Funding availability. Without limits and restrictions, wouldn’t we run the risk of putting human life on the auction block to be sold to the highest bidder? Do we really want to allow this kind of business to be called ethical? That is the danger we run with unrestricted Stem Cell Research Legislation.

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