The Common Good
September 2004

Playing Doctor, Playing God.

by Bob Smietana | September 2004

Should embryos be created for stem cell research?

Jack Kessler wants his daughter Allison to walk again.

Jack Kessler wants his daughter Allison to walk again. Doug Melton wants to cure his son Sam’s diabetes. Nancy Reagan wants to spare families the pain of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease. Kessler, a Northwestern neurologist, Melton, a Harvard biologist, and the former first lady are some of the most passionate advocates for embryonic stem cell research, which they believe offers hope for millions of people.

What stands in the way, they say, are federal rules imposed by President Bush in 2001, which severely limit federal funding of stem cell research. The rules were put in place because harvesting stem cells destroys embryos, something the president believes immoral. Others see it as just as immoral not to pursue avenues that could lead to significant advances against diseases that ravage millions.

The stem cell debate, especially since the death of Ronald Reagan, has been framed in Galileo-like terms: the president and his pro-life, Religious Right supporters standing in the way of scientific progress. But this leaves some vital questions unasked and unanswered.

THE FIRST IS THIS: Are stem cells really a miracle cure that is just around the corner? For Alzheimer’s disease, the answer is probably "no," several researchers told Rick Weiss of The Washington Post. Ronald D.G. McKay, of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, admitted that the Alzheimer’s claim, while doubtful, makes good PR. "To start with, people need a fairy tale," he said. "Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand."

In the May 24 issue of Scientific American, researchers Robert Lanza and Nadia Rosenthal said claims about the "near miraculous potential" of stem cells have been distorted. Actual treatments, they wrote, are still a long way off because of "technical obstacles" (such as tissue rejection) and "unanswered questions." While the moral status of embryos is much debated—stem cells opponents say they are human beings, while stem cells supporters call them "a ball of cells"—each embryo has its own unique genetic code. Without a close genetic match, transplanted embryonic stem cells could be rejected much like a transplanted organ.

This leads to a second question. How many embryos will be needed for embryonic stem cell research and any resulting cures?

Millions, claim Lanza and Rosenthal. But, according to a 2003 study by the Rand Corporation, there are only about 11,000 frozen embryos currently available for research purposes.

Full-scale stem cell research and the manufacturing of cures would mean using not just "spare embryos" but millions of new embryos created specifically for those purposes. Amy Laura Hall, an ethicist from Duke Divinity School, put it this way in The Christian Century: By supporting embryonic stem cell research, "we endorse and encourage an elaborate, systematic, routine industry of embryo production and destruction."

"(E)ach one of us started as an infinitesimal set of cells," she added, "and to bring into being a human embryo solely in order to use it for research threatens further to erode a sense that human life is never simply a tool."

The aim of stem cell research is noble, and should not be understated. Jack Kessler put it this way in a Chicago Tribune editorial: "The moral obligation to help other human beings is a concept universal to virtually all religions, and the entire focus of stem-cell biology is on alleviating human suffering and disease."

I find Kessler’s statement compelling for a personal reason. One of the people who could benefit from stem cell research is my mom, who has multiple sclerosis (MS). This cruel disease has taken away most of her independence—the last time I saw her, she could hardly walk more than 10 steps without needing a wheelchair.

I want my mom to walk again, straight and proud, like she did for so many years. I’m just not convinced the cure is worth the cost.

Bob Smietana is features editor of The Covenant Companion and a freelance religion writer based in Chicago.

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