Stem Cell Politics | Sojourners

Stem Cell Politics

It’s a scary thing to find yourself in bed with Orrin Hatch. I’ve always believed that principles must inform political ideology, and not the other way around, even if that brings you unexpected political bedfellows. But Sen. Hatch? I don’t even own a gun. So why do we agree (in part) on stem cell research?

First, a quick primer. Stem cells are "blank" cells that have the potential to develop into any type of cell in the body—nerve cells, heart cells, kidney cells. Scientists are trying to harvest the cells before they have differentiated, then coax them into becoming specific types. If they could grow cardiac cells, for instance, scientists one day might be able to replace damaged heart tissue in someone who has a heart attack. By growing nerve cells they might be able to repair brain cells damaged by Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, or replace injured spinal cord cells in a paraplegic.

Where are scientists getting these cells? The vast majority of stem cells used in research came from discarded (or excess) embryos—stored at in vitro fertilization clinics—that have never seen the inside of a woman’s uterus. Once an infertile woman has successfully birthed a child, then she and her partner may be asked to donate the unneeded embryos for research. Scientists can also pull stem cells from aborted fetuses, asking for signed consent from a patient who had independently decided to terminate her pregnancy. As opponents of stem cell research are quick to point out, there are other ways of culling the precious cells extracted from the umbilical cord, bone marrow cells, or even cells from fat tissue, but unfortunately none of these methods yield stem cells with the same vitality and versatility as those taken from embryos.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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