STEM CELL RESEARCH: FACTS AND FICTION
What is your stand on stem cell research? Supporters of
embryonic stem cell research promise cures for such human
afflictions as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and spinal cord
injuries. Opponents of this research believe that the human
embryo is a human being that deserves protection from medical
experimentation. Developments and decisions in stem cell research
are made daily. Any interested observer needs to stay informed in
order to intelligently and ethically address the debate. Although
the subject involves technical science, one doesn't need a
background in molecular biology to understand it. Many resources
on the Internet and in libraries explain the topic in layman
EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS
More than twenty years ago, scientists discovered how to
obtain stem cells from mouse embryos. In 1998 they learned how to
isolate stem cells from human embryos and grow them in the
Human embryos used in research are obtained from in vitro
fertilization (IVF) clinics. In these clinics fertilization is
achieved outside the body. Participants in IVF may choose to
donate for research embryos they no longer need or want. As
embryonic stem cell research progresses; clinics may begin
soliciting embryos for research.
An embryo is a developing organism that forms at the time of
fertilization, when egg and sperm unite. Embryos used in research
are typically four or five days old when stem cells are
extracted. At this stage the embryo is a hollow microscopic ball
of cells called the blastocyst. Embryonic stem cells are located
in the inner cell mass of the blastocyst.
Embryonic step cells have these general properties: They can
divide and renew themselves for long periods, and they are
undifferentiated - that is, they can give rise to specialized
cell types like muscle cells, red blood cells, brain cells, or
other cells. A stem cell is called pluripotent when it can
develop into many different cell types. Scientists like Linda
Demer, Ph.D., professor of medicine and physiology at UCLA
Medical School, believe that embryonic stem cells are totipotent
and can develop into all cell types of the body.
Some researchers believe that, in the future, embryonic stem
cells may be used in cell based therapies - procedures in which
the cells are induced to develop into a specific cell type needed
to repair damaged adult cells, or tissues, in the body.
Researchers feel that if they can reliably direct the
differentiation of embryonic stem cells into the desired cell
types, they may use the resulting cells to treat diseases like
diabetes and Parkinson's.
OBSTACLES AND DILEMMAS
To date, no human being has undergone embryonic stem cell
therapy. Despite the reported hope in embryonic stem cell
research, obstacles exist that prevent its use in humans.
One of many hurdles is that experimental animals injected
with embryonic stem cells often develop teratomas - tumors made
up of disorganized cell masses that may lead to tissue
destruction. Because this is a form of transplant therapy,
transplant rejection can occur when the patient's immune system
attacks the foreign material introduced into the body.
The ethical dilemma, however, is even greater: in order to
extract embryonic stem cells, the outer layer of the blastocyst
must be ruptured. Once broken, the blastocyst can never develop
into a viable fetus. The human embryo has been destroyed.
This is why opponents like Professor Robert P. George call
this "destructive embryonic stem cell research."
Professor George, member of the president's council on
bioethics and director of the James Madison Program in American
Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, believes that a
human embryo is a human being. He defines it as a stage of human
development just as infancy, adolescence, and adulthood are
stages in human development.
Says George. "A human embryo is a whole living member of the
species homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural
development. I use the personal pronouns here because sex is
determined from the very beginning as humans. Every person began
life as an embryo which was human from the moment of existence.
We were not potatoes who became human beings or pre-human beings.
We were human beings at the early stage and now human beings at a
much later stage."
Although an advocate of Judeo-Christian morality, Professor
George emphasizes that he does not refer to the Bible when
detailing facts about human embryos. Instead, he uses information
in basic embryology textbooks used in major medical schools.
First-year medical students learn that a human embryo is not
a mere disposable part of something else. Rather, the uniting of
sperm and egg generates a living thing that is admitted by every
authority in the field to be a new, distinct, and enduring
organism: an embryo.
Professor George attests: "The human embryo possesses all
the genetic material needed to inform and organize its flow. The
direction of its growth toward human maturity is not
extrinsically determined but is in accord with the genetic
material within ... we know too much to say, 'Gosh, when does
life begin?' Our friends in embryology and biology have solved
Professor George believes there would be no objection to
using pluripotent embryonic-type cells if they could be derived
from non-embryonic sources, like ...
ADULT STEM CELLS
Adult stem cells are undifferentiated cells found among
specialized cells in human tissues and organs. They can renew
themselves and typically generate the same cell types of the
tissue in which they reside. Adult stem cells are not harvested
from human embryos or fetuses but are found in the developed
human body. Also, stem cells are available from human placentas
and the cord blood of newborn babies.
Supporters of embryonic stem cell research argue that adult
stem cells, although a worthy field of study, are not as
versatile as embryonic stem cells. Recent studies, however, have
demonstrated that adult stem cells from one tissue may give rise
to cell types of a completely different tissue, a phenomenon
known as plasticity. Examples of plasticity include blood cells
becoming neurons and liver cells that can be made to produce
Recent studies demonstrating that certain adult stem cells
are pluripotent have been published in the journal of Cell
Science, June 2004; Journal of Experimental Medicine, July 2004;
and The Journal of Clinical Investigation, February 2005. The
advantages of using adult stem cells are that no transplant
rejection is experienced when a patient undergoes therapy using
his or her own stem cells, and no embryos are destroyed in the
David A.Prentice, Ph.D., senior fellow for Life Sciences,
Center for Human Life Bioethics in Washington, D.C., founding
member of Do No Harm, the Coalition of Americans for Research
Ethics, and professor at Georgetown University, believes it makes
scientific sense to focus on adult stem cell research. He says:
"We often hear that embryonic stem cells have tremendous
potential and possibility, yet the published science shows that
it has not been very successful at all in making good on any of
the promises that have been made over the years. Meanwhile, the
published science of the last six years has shown that adult stem
cells, including umbilical cord blood, are already treating
patients successfully. For years we have heard that you could not
find enough of these cells to make other tissues. That is simply
old science, based on an old dogma. Hundreds of scientific papers
show that that is an outdated idea."
Dr.Prentice also says: "There are thousands of patients who
have been successfully treated and have benefited from adult stem
cell research for conditions like Parkinson's disease, spinal
cord injury, heart therapy after heart attack, multiple
sclerosis. The list goes on and on. If we really cared about the
patient, we would focus on adult stem cell research."
ENTERING THE DEBATE
One high profile supporter of embryonic stem cell research
was the late Christopher Reeve. John F.Kilner, Ph.D., professor
of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity International
University, believes that we can learn a lesson from Reeve's
death. "People are dying now, and we have to get them treatment
now, and adult stem cell treatment is what is producing those
treatments now. Many people don't understand that."
Dr.Kilner maintains that adult stem cell research is far
ahead of embryonic stem cell research, so much so that many
people could be saved today if every available resource were
pledged toward adult stem cell research. He believes that the
biggest problem is the way the research is presented in public
discussion and media. "The question posed to most people is, 'Are
you for or against stem cell research?' When it's reported that
some people are against various practices going on in stem cell
research, it's as if, 'Gee, can you imagine that there are these
people out there who are against stem cell research? And this is
such a wonderful area. How uncompassionate, how uncaring to be
against stem cell research.'"
How can concerned people affect this debate? Dr.Kilner
explains: "People need to become informed. They need to
understand what is going on. People need to know what makes a
human being a human being and why an embryo is a human being at
the earliest stage. So job one is to educate oneself."
Second, Dr.Kilner challenges people to communicate informed
opinions to friends, relatives, and neighbors. Urge your church
to start an adult education program and a youth education
Third, he urges people to communicate their views. If a
local research institution is deciding how to prioritize its
resources - toward adult stem cell work, embryonic stem cell
work, or a combination of the two - Dr. Kilner suggests finding
out who are the decision-makers in that institution and conveying
your information and opinion. "Everyone has a responsibility to
make sure that the people who are in decision-making roles at a
low level or high level have the approppriate information and
understand what our ethical concerns are. Those are very
important steps to take."
The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity was founded, he
explains, not only to give information on stem cell research but
also to offer ideas on how to bring a Christian perspective into
a pluralistic world and public arena.
Hope for the future Stem Cell research is a promising and
exciting field of medicine. But as much hope as embryonic stem
cells may offer those afflicted with disease or
handicaps, the truth is that the more than 58 different
treatments successfully used in human patients have all used
adult stem cells. None are embryonic.
Given time, money, and resources, scientists will someday
discover treatments using embryonic stem cells. But the actual
benefits of adult stem cell research are here today. A concerned
and informed society can voice its support for adult stem cell
research and further the actual scientific successes that have
already benefited humankind.
A concerned society that believes a human embryo is a human
being is called upon to echo, in the public arena, the words of
William Temple, twentieth century spokesman for the Christian and
The primary principle of Christian Ethics and Christian
Politics must be respect for every person simply as a
person. If each man and woman is a child of God, whom God
loves and for whom Christ died, then there is in each a
worth absolutely independent of all the usefulness to
society. The person is primary, not the society; the State
exists for the citizen, not the citizen for the State.
We conclude, then, that embryonic stem cell research results
in the cessation of actual and viable human life. Adult stem cell
research, on the other hand, draws from non-embryonic sources and
does not demand that one human life be sacrificed for another.
George Angelo writes from Marina de Rey, CA.
OUR NEWEST NATURAL RESOURCE
HOW FAR WILL WE GO TO FIND A CURE?
In 1729 the people of Ireland were ravaged by poverty, and
many were starving. To answer their desperate plight, Jonathan
Swift, an Irish clergyman, put forth what he titled "A Modest
Proposal For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland
From Being A Burden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making
Them Beneficial to The Public." In one of the most influential
satires ever written, Swift proposed that a certain percentage of
Irish babies be sold for food, simultaneously increasing the food
supply and reducing the demand.
Swift's proposal was largely successful in awakening many
people to the dangers of moral utilitarianism, the view that a
worthwhile end will justify an otherwise objectionable means.
Despite Swift's pretty dignified prose, readers were
repulsed by the suggestion that "a young healthy child well
nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and
wholesome food." Such action would be repugnant, even if it saved
But, of course, that was nearly three hundred years ago.
Perhaps not even Jonathan Swift could move us today.
The moral utilitarianism that Swift lampooned in 1729 has
become the modus operandi for many of us. When apartment dwellers
Jason Black and Frances Schroeder faced the prospect of a third
child in the family (Schroeder was pregnant with a baby boy),
they discussed creative ways to make enough money to buy a house.
They eventually offered the baby's name for auction on eBay and
Yahoo, hoping that some company would pay as much as $500,000 for
the "naming rights" to their child. They were apparently prepared
to name their child Microsoft or General Electric if it meant
getting a new house out of the deal. (Black did, however,
disqualify cigarette or gun manufacturers, stipulating that "My
wife and I have standards.") Call it "A Modest Proposal For
Preventing The Children of Two People in America From Being
Raised in an Apartment, and For Making The Youngest Child
Beneficial to The Family Budget."
So we've come to this - children as a natural resource. A
way to make money. A way to make our lives better. A way to cure
After all, that's the principle at the core of the embryonic
stem cell debate. Since the original cells of an unborn human
baby in the earliest stages of development can develop into all
the organs of an adult human, why not use those stem cells to
benefit the public? The reasoning seems especially attractive in
the case of of surplus embryos from fertility clinics, which
would be destroyed anyway. Wouldn't it be better to put those
unwanted, unborn children to good use, utilizing them for medical
research and for the treatment of Parkinson's disease? Call it "A
Modest Proposal For Preventing Unwanted, Unborn Children From
Being Unnecessarily Wasted, and For Making Them Beneficial to The
Public." My, what a can of worms we have opened!
SYMPTOM, CONSEQUENCE, WARNING
The current debate is simultaneously a symptom, a
consequence, and a warning. It is a symptom of a culture that no
longer has the benefit of a moral consensus. To paraphrase the
psalmist, "Once the foundations have been destroyed, what can the
righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3).
These ethical controversies are also a natural consequence
of moral utilitarianism, the idea that the right or wrong of a
thing depends upon whether it has a generally positive outcome.
An increasing percentage of people in our society weigh
difficult decisions by the credo "If it works, it's right."
But God's standards have never been fluid. God's perspective
of reality says, "If it's right, it will work" for if you
"observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and
keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements ... then
you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go" (1 Kings 2:3,
NIV). Ours is a cause-and-effect world in which God communicated
to us His ways that are based on universal - not utilitarian -
And, finally, the debate over such issues as stem cell
harvesting and cloning is also a warning. The primary argument in
favor of embryonic stem cell harvesting and research is, of
course, the potential good that may come; the end will justify
the means. But God's Word says, "Children are a gift from the
LORD; they are a reward from him" (Psalm 127:3, NLT). Children -
even unborn children - are not a natural resource to be harvested
and used for beneficial ends; they are a gift, a heritage, a
priceless trust from the hand of God.
Those are hard words for our pragmatic culture to hear,
because if the end justifies the means, then helping or curing
one person - especially if it's you, your spouse, your parent or
your loved one - makes all sorts of otherwise objectionable
Which may seem attractive ... until YOU become the means,
and not the end.
Bob Hostetler writes from Hamilton, OH. USA
The two above articles were published in the January/February
Bible Advocate, 2006, a publication of the Church of God, 7th
Day, Denver, CO. USA. Their Website is: www.cog7.org