Friday, December 7, 2007

Stem cells and life issues

One of the issues that has confused Christians for nearly a decade is that of stem cell research. While many of us have heard the claims that "stem cell research will cure the world's diseases and afflictions," these claims are sometimes challenged, often unsubstantiated. And just as the issue was moving to the fore of public interest, the 9/11 terrorist attacks (rightly) took our attention off of it.

What is going on with the stem cell question? Proponents have long argued, as I mentioned before, that the key to solving a great many medical problems may lie in investing in stem cell research, specifically embryonic stem cell research. In fact, they have maintained that only embryonic stem cells offer the possibilities that medical science hopes for. Opponents claim that, in the case of embryonic stem cells, there is a moral/ethical sticky wicket involved: in order to obtain these cells for research, a human embryo must be destroyed. Since many believe that human life begins at conception, this means that, a human life must be taken in order to perform the research. This was the state of the debate 6 years ago, and for a long time there was little change in this impasse. Immediately prior to 9/11, President Bush issued an executive order substantially limiting stem cell research, and that further ceased any progress in the discussion.

Fast-forward to June of this year: a bill (one of a series) was passed by Congress to approve funding for embryonic stem cell research, and President Bush vetoed it. At that time, he put forth the argument that he (and many other opponents) have offered before: there are other, better sources for stem cells than living human embryos, and these offer as much possibility as any embryonic cells do. While many proponents snickered or jeered at Bush's dogmatic take on the research, a few scientists (specifically in Kyoto, Japan and Madison, Wisconsin) plodded ahead with just such an effort.

This fall, they announced their success in two medical journals (Cell and Science): they had succeeded in creating human stem cells ("pluripotent" ones-- meaning they have the potential to take many forms) from existing human skin cells. What is more, because these stem cells are created from a human's own cells, they theoretically offer better potential at organ replacement, for example, because of a lesser likelihood that the organs will be rejected. And this obviously removes the ethical concern, as no embryos are required for this process. They declared their discovery an "ethical and political win-win."

This advance, however, is not welcome news to the ears of everyone interested in this medical technology. It turns out that other implications have emerged from this research, as well: stem cell research may not be the promising cure-all that many hoped it to be. Instead, it may simply contribute to the study and advance of existing cures for diseases, rather than offering exciting and near-miraculous new approaches to curing things like paralysis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, or heart failure.

Many still claim that embryonic stem cells still offer this promise. Yet the truth is starting to come out: as Paul Nurse (a medical Nobel winner) said at a stem cell conference, "Creating cell lines for transplant is unlikely to come down the pike any time soon. Opponents recognized that this was an overselling of the technology" (Newsweek, 12/3). Even if the strongest opponents are right about embryonic stem cells, that still leaves the ethical dilemma of the use of embryos for research purposes. Thus, this revelation (about the realistic limits of stem cell research) at best puts us back to the stand-off that has been status quo for the past six years.

Two things need to occur to reasonably advance this issue for Christians and others: first, attentive thought should begin to debunk the myth that "funded stem cell research = cures for all our ills." Until our world begins to understand this more fully, no profitable discussion on the matter can really take place.

Second, however, is the imperative that everyone, even (and especially) Christians, must begin to accept: the bio-ethical issues of the value and sanctity of human life, so core to many Christians' understanding of how we understand things like the abortion issue, needs to be explored more fully. We must not accept a weak, inconsistent application of life-value, but must realize the full extent to which this value applies to our world. It includes (but is not limited to) embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and abortion; but it also includes questions about elder care, certain fertility efforts, and even warfare. From my perspective, we (as a Church) have been careless about thinking through the consistent application of our claims to be "pro-life" in the big-picture sense.

"Where they stand" by Richard Ostling, in World magazine, December 15, 2007 issue.
"Reality Check on an Embryonic Debate" by Sharon Begley, in Newsweek magazine, December 3, 2007 issue.
"Scientists Produce Embryonic Stem Cells from Skin" by Joe Palca, on All Things Considered, November 20, 2007 episode.

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