Stem Cell Research: Overview and Brief Analysis

by Linda Bevington
Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity
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In November of 1998, scientists reported that they had successfully isolated and cultured human stem cells -- a feat which had eluded researchers for almost two decades. Scientists believe that these cells will allow them to grow tissue which may be used to restore the health of persons suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, and other afflictions. This medical breakthrough, which could potentially revolutionize medicine, prompted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to consider whether federal funds should be allotted for research on stem cells obtained from human embryos. Although a Congressional ban on the use of federally-funded human embryo research has been in place since 1994, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) ruled on January 15, 1999 that such funds may indeed be used to support human embryonic stem cell research since the stem cells obtained from embryos are not in themselves embryos. The fact that all embryos from which stem cells are obtained must be destroyed should cause us all to consider the implications of furthering medical science at such a great cost.

  1. What are stem cells?

    Stem cells are the cells from which all 210 different kinds of tissue in the human body originate. Although a stem cell can give rise to more specialized cells, it cannot form an entire human being and is therefore not equivalent to an embryo. However, one major approach to obtaining stem cells involves the destruction of a human embryo.

  2. How were scientists able to obtain these cells?

    Two independent teams of U.S. scientists -- one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the other at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland -- succeeded in isolating and culturing stem cells taken from two different sources. The Wisconsin team, headed by Dr. James Thomson, obtained its stem cells from surplus embryos donated by fertility clinics. This process necessitated the destruction of these embryos. The researchers at Johns Hopkins, led by Dr. John Gearhart, derived their stem cells from aborted fetal tissue.

  3. Why do scientists think they can use stem cells to treat diseases?

    Because many diseases -- such as Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and diabetes -- result from the death or dysfunction of a single cell type, scientists believe that the introduction of healthy cells of this type into a patient will restore lost or compromised function. Now that researchers have discovered means of isolating and culturing stem cells, they are hopeful that they can direct these cells into becoming the specialized cells and tissues that they need for transplant into patients. Understanding this process could lead to improved means of preventing and treating birth defects and cancer. Also, by producing a virtually unlimited supply of human cells and tissues in the laboratory, pharmaceutical researchers could develop and test new drugs in a manner previously not possible.

  4. How were scientists able to obtain these cells?

    Underlying the passages of Scripture that refer to the unborn (Job 31:15; Psa. 139:13-16; Isa. 49:1; Jer.1:5; Gal. 1:15; Eph. 1:3-4) is the assumption that they are human beings who are created, known, and uniquely valued by God. Genesis 9:6 warns us against killing our fellow humanity, who are created in the very image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Furthermore, human embryonic life--as well as all of creation--exists primarily for God’s own pleasure and purpose, not ours (Col. 1:16).

  5. Shouldn’t it be ethical to allow the destruction of a few embryos in order to help the millions of people who suffer from diseases such as Parkinson’s and heart disease?

    Many proponents of human embryonic stem cell research argue that it is actually wrong to protect the lives of a few unborn human beings if doing so will delay treatment for a much larger number of people who suffer from fatal or debilitating diseases. However, we are not free to pursue good ends through immoral or unethical means (Deut. 27:25). The medical experiments in Nazi Germany should serve as just one reminder of the consequences of doing evil in the name of science. We must not sacrifice one class of human beings (the embryonic) to benefit another (those suffering from serious illness). Scripture resoundingly rejects the temptation to "do evil that good may result" (Romans 3:8).

  6. Does all stem cell research involve the destruction of human embryos or the use of aborted fetal tissue?

    The National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) has identified many potential avenues of stem cell research which would not involve the use of human embryos. Included in these are techniques which would stimulate the growth and specialization of stem cells found in adult tissues and the use of stem cells from bone marrow or umbilical cord blood.  Recent scientific breakthroughs have demonstrated that the destruction of embryos may indeed not be at all necessary to achieve the benefits promised by stem cell research. Federal funds should be allotted to develop these alternative methods of stem cell research rather than those which require embryo destruction -- even if the latter promises more rapid medical advances.

  7. Is the government now funding the destruction of embryos?

    The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that federal funds may legally be used to support research on human embryonic stem cells. Although federal funds may not be used to finance the destruction of embryos which occurs when the stem cells are obtained, this technicality is overcome by ensuring that embryo-derived stem cells are procured by privately-funded scientists, who in turn provide them to federally-funded researchers for experimentation. Because those who fund and carry out such research are in effect sanctioning the destruction of embryonic human life, they are also guilty of immoral action.

  8. How can I make a difference?

    Federal funds will not be used for research on human embryonic stem cells until Congress and the public have had the opportunity to voice opposition to such research. Please help defend and protect the human embryo by urging the U.S. government to fund only methods of human stem cell research which do not involve human embryo destruction. You can make your voice heard on this critical issue by writing, telephoning, or e-mailing your U.S. Representatives and Senators. Contact information for each Representative is available at http://www.house.gov/ and for each Senator at http://www.senate.gov/, or through the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Since the Congressional Majority Leadership and Senate Majority Leadership are setting the legislative agenda for the coming year, you may also voice your concerns by calling the Capitol switchboard and asking to speak with either of these leadership offices.

For more information contact:

The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity
2065 Half Day Road
Bannockburn, IL 60015 USA
Phone: (847) 317-8180; Fax: (847) 317-8153
E-mail: cbhd@biccc.org; Web Site: http://www.bioethix.org


Written 5 Feb 1999.

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