The National Institutes of Health, the federal government’s chief medical facilities, announced last week that it has approved 13 new lines of human embryonic stem cells for federally financed research. There are currently 96 other lines under review for similar research.
Approval of the new lines comes after President Obama overturned a previous Bush policy last March that limited federally funded human embryonic stem cell research to lines already available as of August 9, 2001. Bush’s policy permitted the use of embryonic stem cells in privately funded research but banned the use of taxpayer money to support this research as it terminates the life of a fertilized embryo.
President Obama’s new policy removes this ban and provides $21 million for the new studies, while continuing to ban employees of the National Institutes of Health from deriving new cells themselves.
Although the bio-ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research are highly complex, both from a moral and scientific perspective, here is a brief overview of some of the myths and facts relating to embryonic stem cell research:
Myth: An embryo is not a human being.
Fact: Although a human embryo is smaller than the point of a pen, it is still a human being. “The morally relevant consideration is not appearance,” the Family Research Council explains, “rather, it is the fact that from the beginning the embryo possesses the epigenetic primordia for self-directed growth and maturation through the stages of human development from the embryonic, through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages, and into adulthood with its distinctness and identity fully intact. As such, the embryo is a whole, living member of the species homo sapiens which is already–and not merely potentially–developing itself (actually himself or herself since sex is already determined) to the next more mature stage along the continuum of development of a determinate and enduring human life.”
Myth: Embryonic stem cells posses a unique promise for medical breakthroughs that cannot be duplicated in non-embryonic stem cell research.
Fact: Non-embryonic stem cells, specifically adult stem cells, can be safely obtained from adults, children and other human sources without harm to any human being. They have already been successfully used in treating Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, stroke, anemia, cancer, immunodeficiency, corneal damage, blood and liver diseases, heart attack, and diabetes. Embryonic stem cell research, on the other hand, has had very little clinical success. According to The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, “scientists conducting research on embryonic stem cells have encountered significant obstacles—including tumor formation, unstable gene expression, and an inability to stimulate the cells to form the desired type of tissue.”
Myth: The number of lives that could be saved or improved through embryonic stem cell research ethically outweighs the destruction of already existing embryos.
Fact: First of all, as stated above, embryonic stem cell research has not even begun to fulfill the medical breakthroughs promised by its advocates, despite years of research. But more importantly, allowing the medical profession to begin taking a life in order to save another moves into an ethical and logical realm our society is not prepared to enter. At no point should the medical or scientific profession move be allowed to judge the value of one human life against another. And at the point at which the humanity of a life becomes complex and hazy, an ethical and moral society should always err on the side of protecting life.