Stem-cell research has been a hot-button issue for some time now. To the chagrin of pro-lifers, high-profile Hollywood celebrities have lobbied for an increase in taxpayer-funded destructive embryonic stem-cell research. Even former first lady Nancy Reagan made a pitch for the same. Just a few weeks ago, Congress approved legislation that would have succumbed to such pressure. Nevertheless, President George W. Bush pro-life himself wisely vetoed the legislation, saying the measure "would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others" and "crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect."
But what if it were possible to harvest embryonic stem cells from human embryos without harming those embryos wouldn't that solve the moral dilemma? That's what Robert Lanza, vice president of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) of Worchester, Massachusetts, claimed two weeks ago in the journal Nature that their research had succeeded in doing. Unfortunately, ACT's claims turned out to be a disappointment.
In an article titled Has Robert Lanza Solved the Dilemma? Dr. Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission noted: "While we appreciate Dr. Lanza'a effort to find a way around the unacceptable destruction of human embryos to obtain embryonic stem cells, we do not consider his solution to be viable."
Indeed, it isn't viable and Duke explains why, arguing that the method Lanza employs could destroy the embryo and in some cases already does. In fact, at least 16 embryos were destroyed in Lanza's research. Duke contends the process also extracts approximately 12 percent of the embryo's original genetic makeup. It's impossible at this point to know exactly what effects this would have on the development of persons who have had that much of their genetic material removed. Moreover, the cells being used are totipotent cells. Just as a single cell can separate naturally at its earliest stages to create a twin, twinning also occurs when a single cell is removed surgically. Totipotent cells start to form an embryo, but that process is disrupted by the researcher, essentially destroying the twin, when an effort is made to manipulate them to form as stem cells.
The good news, however, seems to be that the direction of stem-cell research has turned a corner. Obviously, ACT's research, as well as that of many others, indicates a growing interest, even discomfort with destroying human embryos for stem cells.
That's the point of an encouraging piece penned by Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. In The Real Good News on Stem Cells, George contends new techniques are currently being developed from which embryonic stem cells could be derived without harming embryos. He writes:
"One possibility is 'altered nuclear transfer.' This research, being pursued at MIT and elsewhere, seeks to fuse ordinary body cells, obtained harmlessly from donors, with oocyte cytoplasm in such a way as to produce donor-specific pluripotent stem cells without producing or destroying a human embryo. Another possibility is 'dedifferentiation.' Last August, Harvard scientists showed they could 'reprogram' an ordinary human skin cell back to the pluripotent state. No embryo was produced in the process, yet stem cells were generated. Their experiment still has some kinks to clear away, but just a few weeks ago a group of Japanese scientists showed they could eliminate many of those and turn a skin cell into the precise equivalent of an embryonic stem cell. Their work was in mice, and perhaps that is why it did not receive the degree of attention that the ACT study grabbed, but it was if anything more promising and exciting .... Similar techniques are being explored around the world, and it now seems that a new mood is overtaking the field."
In the conclusion of his arguments against the Lanza method, Duke sounds both a challenge and a warning:
"The promise of stem cells is vast. God has put at our discretion the ability to develop a set of tools to help us fix some of humanity's most devastating maladies. We must remember, however, that we must not sacrifice our humanity in order to achieve these great advances. To sacrifice the most vulnerable of our species for the benefit of the rest is too high a price to pay. Today's scientists must move forward on a sold ethical footing or they risk falling into the same pit that doomed many of Nazi Germany's scientists to a legacy of disgust and moral outrage. We do not need to destroy, or even put at risk, human embryos in order to achieve the wonderful promise of stem-cell therapy. Stem cells derived from non-embryonic sources are already being used to treat and cure more than 70 maladies. We applaud those scientists who are determined to advance our knowledge and our ability to assist our fellow humans in a way that respects all of life ...."
Despite the way some characterize President Bush as a buffoon, America should be grateful the president has been so sagacious in holding the nation to a high standard on this issue. His firm leadership has not only protected the sanctity of human life, but motivated some to think out of the box and focus on methods that make real advances in stem-cell research. What is more, pro-lifers ought to take heart that their arguments for life are surely making headway.
When it comes to stem-cell research, any scientist, leader, or nation, for that matter, willing to honor life at every stage, can find hope in that blessed promise of Scripture: "Let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not" (Galatians 6:9).
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.