The Clinton administration is playing with words when it comes to bioethics, says Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, which resists the use of cells from destroyed human embryos in federally funded research."If a law said that no federal funds may support research in which porpoises are destroyed," Johnson says, "and a federal agency then told its grantees to arrange for porpoises to be caught and killed for use in federally approved experiments, everyone would recognize this as illegal and that the decision violates the express intent of the law."The Clinton administration's revised guidelines will allow federal funding of research on the estimated 150,000 human embryos left behind at fertility clinics, provided that federal funds are not used to actually destroy the embryos. That process will be done by independent researchers, often funded by corporate money. Embryos have highly important stem cells, which develop into each kind of human tissue that a growing fetus needs. Once researchers obtain the stem cells and multiply them, the resulting stem cells would be provided to federally supported scientists. Christians involved in this debate should avoid "the simplistic answers characteristic of bumper stickers, and search more deeply for the principles that best reflect biblical faith and the love of God," says Gerald R. Winslow, a biomedical ethics professor at Loma Linda University, a Seventh-day Adventist school. A wide range of groups support using human embryos for stem-cell research. Celebrities Christopher Reeve, Mary Tyler Moore, and Michael J. Fox, all of whom may benefit from stem cell-based therapies, have testified this year in Congress, citing the significant promise that such research holds. Advocates for using surplus human embryos argue that federally funded research provides greater oversight of scientists, that human embryos will not be cloned or manufactured for research purposes, and that a human embryo is not legally a person. "The embryos. … bear as much resemblance to a human being as a goldfish," Moore told a congressional panel.
Adult stem cells
Critics of using human embryos say that embryo research is unnecessary because stem cells derived from an adult or, best of all, from a patient are a highly favorable area of research. They also accuse the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of misrepresenting the issue to the public. The NIH rationale for favoring embryonic stem cells is that adult stem cells are either not available or not as useful. But a number of recent research studies have identified stem cells in adults and have shown that adult stem cells produce a variety of new cell types in the same way as embryonic stem cells. NIH says that adult stem cells were difficult to replicate. Ironically, research funded by NIH itself and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which advocates using surplus human embryos for research, reported in August that adult human bone-marrow cells grew rapidly in culture and formed nerve cells. Such new nerve cells have huge potential for treating paralysis and diseases of the nervous system, such as Parkinson's. A growing supply of umbilical-cord blood, donated after childbirth, also provides a rich source of stem cells.
A key question is whether the Clinton administration will fund embryonic stem-cell research more generously than adult stem-cell research in coming years. As early as 2001, when new grants are awarded, the direction of federal research will be clearer.Some critics suspect that the issue is partly psychological. While research on embryos is not necessary to achieve treatment goals, some see it as a "one-size-fits-all solution" to a variety of research problems, says David Prentice, a molecular geneticist at Indiana State University.Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century, notes that many medical researchers sit on bioethics advisory committees, so the ethics guidance passed to the White House often favors proceeding with research seen as "pushing the frontier."That frontier includes research using human embryos, but not necessarily stem cells from adult donors, which is merely a transplant technology. Another key concern of critics is that the large and growing supply of unclaimed embryos will be used for purposes other than research into life-threatening diseases.Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) would allow women to donate their unneeded frozen human embryos directly to federally financed researchers. The Senate may vote on the measure by the end of this year.
Visit the NIH homepage.Read more about bioethics concerns at Trinity's Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.There are numerous other bioethics sites including the American Society for Biotheics and the Humanities, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, and the UNESCO Bioethics Commission.Previous Christianity Today stories on stem cells include:Beyond the Impasse to What? | Stem-cell research may not need human embryos after all. But why are we researching in the first place? (Aug. 18, 2000) Thus Spoke Superman | Troubling language frames the stem-cell debate. (June 13, 2000) New Stem-Cell Research Guidelines Criticized | NIH guidelines skirt ethical issues about embryo destruction, charge bioethicists. (Jan. 28, 2000) Human Embryo Research Resisted (August 9, 1999) Embryo Research Contested (May 24, 1999) The Biotech Temptation | Research on human embryos holds great promise, but at what price? (July 12, 1999) Other media coverage of stem cell research includes:Shake-up for embryo research rules—The Scotsman (Sept. 27, 2000) New Cells Grow In Injured Eyes—Newsday (Sept. 27, 2000) Corporation Granted Patent for Device to Isolate Stem Cells From Blood—Yahoo (Sept. 25, 2000) Bush White House would end stem cell research—UPI News (Sept. 22, 2000)
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