|By David Scott
“Stem cells” are those primordial elements of the human organism that are capable of developing into any cells or tissue in the body.
Scientists believe that from these stem cells they might one day be able to grow heart muscle, bone marrow, or even kidney and brain cells. These could then be implanted in patients to replace damaged or diseased tissues. Thus, research involving these cells has the potential to lead to cures or new treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s or diabetes.
But to “isolate” or obtain stem cells, researchers at present need to destroy living human embryos. The first stem cells isolated by private researchers last November were extracted from embryos “donated” by a fertility clinic and from the tissue of aborted fetuses.
Current federal law in the United States, written in 1995, forbids federal funding for research in which embryos are “destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero.”
Nevertheless, in a tortuously legalistic ruling, the Clinton administration announced Jan. 19 that it intends to start funding stem-cell research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) said stem cells are not embryos under the strict definitions of the law because the cells “do not have the capacity to develop into a human being.”
Other scientists aren’t so sure. And the nation’s Catholic bishops have called the NIH’s definition “arbitrary” and questioned whether the clusters of stem cells might not themselves be embryos.
No matter what the technicalities, surely the spirit if not the letter of present federal law would prevent research that depends on the destructive “harvesting” of cells from embryos.
We also fear that the administration’s announcement will open the door to a “black market” in human embryos for stem-cell research purposes. The logic seems inevitable.
Stem cells can’t be isoslated without destroying human embryos, which researchers working with federal funds can’t legally do. It makes sense—economically if not ethically—that federally funded researchers will then look to abortion and fertility clinics as the logical suppliers of such embryos.
This raises the specter of fertility clinics retailing embryos to stem-sell researchers and abortion clinics selling tissue from aborted fetuses. In industries so unscrupulous and so unregulated such scenarios don’t seem far-fetched.
We question, too, whether human embryos are needed at all for such research. A study published in the medical journal Science in January suggested stem cells derived from adults might be just as useful in research as those obtained by destroying live embryos.
These are all complicated questions, but that’s why we can’t leave them solely to the medical-research establishment.
The human embryo is a human life. To destroy human life—even in its most incipient form and for the “noble” intentions of finding cures to disease and disability—is a cruel and dehumanizing proposition.
There is sufficient moral and scientific doubt raised to warrant more study before committing taxpayer dollars and by implication, national consent to such research.
We urge Congress to make explicit what we believe is already implicit in federal law—that our tax dollars can’t be used for stem-cell research because such research requires putting human embryos to death. We need to stop the human harvest before it begins.
Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor (February 7, 1999)
© David Scott, 2010. All rights reserved.