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The Debate Over Embryonic Stem Cell Research

March 13, 2009
N. Lukanovich

Is a frozen embryo the equivalent of a human being? This is the political, religious, or ideological question that lies at the heart of the stem cell research debate between those who wish to annihilate stem cell research and those who want scientists to pursue research that could lead to treatments for spinal cord injuries and a multitude of diseases, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, cancer, congential diseases, and the creation of new organs for transplant purposes.

On Monday, March 9, President Obama signed an executive order to lift the restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research, but the issues of what types of stem cell lines can be used and what types of studies will be supported is still unclear; the NIH (National Institute of Health) has been entrusted with the responsibility to make these decisions, and has been given 120 days to review both the science of stem cell research and ethical concerns.

Reactions to Obama's announcement range from the accusation by the Iowa Christian Alliance that the President is "ushering in a culture of death", to the doubt expressed by Susan Soloman, CEO of the NYSCSF (New York Stem Cell Foundation), that the symbolic signature of Obama's to loosen up restrictions will result in the elimination of obstacles impeding scientific progress in this field. The President does not have the unilateral authority to overturn the Dicky-Wicker Amendment, passed by Congress in l996, which banned the creation or destruction of human embryos, "even those discarded in fertility clinics". The creation of stem cell lines involves the destruction of embryos: embryonic stem cell research begins with a blastocyst, a group of embryos from which stem cells are removed after the blastocyst has divided into smaller groups of cells - the blastocyst is then destroyed.

Obama can only authorize federal funding for research on 'new and existing stem cell lines". Obama's order does, however, reverse the limits imposed by George W. Bush in 2001 that restricted federal funding to research on the 21 stem cell lines that existed at that time. One can only assume that the 'new' stem lines are ones that have been created since 2001 through private research, which has continued through the donations of philanthropists. It will up to Congress to overturn the Dicky-Wicker Amendment.

Pope John Paul II, in l996, stated that "there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands of 'frozen' embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons." Bishop John D'Arcy, of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, issued a statement on Tuesday, March 10, that accuses Obama of putting the American government into a position of "supporting the direct destruction of human life", (just as an aside, one has to wonder if the Bishop has issued statements against any type of warfare, for instance, the 'destruction of human life' in Iraq or Afghanistan). The Bishop also chose to use the term 'embryonic human life' to describe an embryo. He states that the Catholic Church is against any research that would treat a human being as a "means to an end".

The Bishop also accused the President of permitting the destruction of human beings through the cloning of human beings for experimentation, but not reproduction. In the first place, there is no certainty that this type of experimentation will be allowed without overturning the Dicky-Wicker Amendment. Secondly, the 'experimentation' that the Bishop refers to, is research on cloning organs for transplant purposes, research that could lead to providing a person who needs a new heart, liver, cornea, etc, with an organ that is an immunological match, reducing many of the complications of organ rejection and the need for immuno-suppressive drugs, and eliminating the need for transplanting organs from deceased donors.

The Bishop's insistence on referring to embryos as "human beings" exploited for research purposes is an attitude that is shared by many other conservative Christians. Another commonality with others who oppose the use of embryonic stem cells is the unfounded claim that science has proved that the use of adult stem cells is just as effective for research. This is an utter fallacy. In fact, science has shown that embryonic stem cells are far more plastic and more able to become other cell types. Adult stem cells do not reproduce as accurately as embryonic stem cells and may lose genetic information after multiple cell divisions. The value of embryonic stem cells in research is a question for scientists not those who have never entered a lab, but wish to make science fit their ideology.

Steve Scheffler, President of the Iowa Christian Alliance, is one who would prefer to ignore science and further his cause by making statements like this: "the only proven breakthroughs in medical research have come from adult stem cells." He goes further and suspects Obama's true intentions: "One would wonder what the Obama Administration is more concerned about…is it finding cures for dreaded diseases? Or is the goal to promote abortion?"

But who really has the hidden agenda? Perhaps these groups opposed to embryonic stem cell research seek to legally define embryos as human beings in order to ban abortion. The Iowa Christian Alliance is a group devoted to "educating" the public and "train Christians for political action". There are now several Christian groups that provide embryo 'adoption' services - yet another step in equating a frozen embryo with a baby. One such group is called Snowflakes, given 1 million dollars by the Bush administration to promote so-called embryonic adoption.

So back to the million dollar question: is a frozen embryo a human being? An embryo, frozen or even implanted in the uterus only has the potential to become a human being. In normal reproduction, at least half of fertilized embryos do not implant in the uterus and are lost. Do we mourn the loss of life in normal reproduction? (The Catholic Church probably does, considering the continued ban on contraception and that one of the reasons masturbation is a no go zone is the loss of sperm, which is also incredibly unscientific, since sperm has a very short shelf life, ejaculated or not.)

20% of embryos that do implant in the uterus are lost through miscarriage, often before a woman knows that she is pregnant. A frozen embryo in a vial does not even have the opportunity to implant in a uterus unless it is selected for in-vitro, so the potential for human life is even slimmer. It's also worth considering that the embryos rejected by doctors are the least likely to develop, and that embryos for in-vitro are created from couples with fertility troubles, usually using the eggs of an older woman. The chances of a successful implantation with in-vitro, using the best 'fresh' embryos from a woman over 40 are only 5-10%. This is why more than one embryo is always implanted during in vitro. When using frozen embryos, the chance of implantation is even less, and the longer an embryo is frozen (at -196 degrees Celsius) the smaller the chance of implantation, to the point where it becomes 0%.

Add to this information the fact that half of embryos do not survive the freezing process, or are too badly damaged for use, so thousands upon thousands of embryos are discarded. Should we start charging doctors and patients involved in in-vitro fertilization with negligent homicide?

So once again, is a frozen embryo a human being? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to ask another one, based on a hypothetical situation. You are in a burning building and somewhere in that building there is a frozen embryo, and in a different part of the building there is a baby. You cannot save both the baby and the embryo. Do you ignore the baby's cries coming from the nursery upstairs and rush to the basement lab to save the frozen embryo? No, you rush to save the baby, because it's a living, breathing, realized human being.

COMMENTS:

Comment further to your article The Debate Over Embryonic Stem Cell Research:

The Republicans, under the guidance of Karl Rove, were masters at “framing the debate,” most recently during the years leading up to George W. Bush’s election and reelection. Framing the debate involves “the mental structure known as a "frame" -- that matters as much as the words themselves.” (Examples: global warming and tax relief. ) As George Lakoff wrote in a 2004 article in the Boston Globe, “[O]nce phrases become part of everyday language, their frames become physically fixed in people's brains. When this happens, mere facts don't matter. If the facts don't fit the frames, the frames stay and the facts are ignored. Once the Republicans see their frames accepted, they have an overwhelming advantage in every debate. Their frames become the new common sense, because frames define what common sense is.” (visit www.commondreams.org)

I am not sure who coined the term Embryonic Stem Cell Research but would bet that it was not a Republican, or it would likely be known as something more easily visualized to the masses, such as baby destruction technology. Embryo 'adoption' services reeks of a desperate ploy to reframe the debate.

Alison Morton
March 23





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