As a scientist involved in the study of Alzheimer’s disease, I have followed with interest the debate on the use of embryonic stem cells. The research community is divided and passionate voices speak on both sides of the issue. Yet I, like so many Americans and our President, recognize that this debate extends far beyond the research in which any scientist is engaged. The decisions we make in this arena will offer both precedent and premise for future decisions on the life and liberty of every human being.
Recently, President Bush decided to limit federal funding only to stem cells from embryos that have already been destroyed. He recognizes that the noble end of curing diseases such as Alzheimer's and juvenile diabetes cannot justify the taking of human life. Therefore, federal funds will not be provided to carry out research that involves the ongoing destruction of human embryos. However, since their use has not been banned, embryonic stem cell research funded by private resources will continue unabated.
Due in part to the technical nature of the debate, many have been confused about what embryonic stem cells are and why their use inspires such controversy if they might help to cure disease. Once a sperm cell fertilizes an egg, the genetic blueprint of a unique human being is established. The egg cell then begins the process of dividing ultimately into the few trillion cells that comprise an adult.
Virtually every cell in the body has the same DNA and genetic instructions, however, as the cells divide, some of the genes are turned on while others are turned off. The first cells contain the instructions to become almost every type of tissue in the body, and with successive generations, the options begin to narrow. The early cells are called “stem cells” because they can give rise to many different cell types. In order to harvest the stem cells, a scientist must destroy the embryo.
While some may argue whether these embryos represent human life or only “potential life,” scientifically speaking, there is no debate. If the embryos were not alive, the stem cells harvested from them would be unfit to use in any research. Further, even at this early stage, they can be identified as human and have exactly the same chromosomes as any other human.
Scripture affirms that a baby growing in the womb is not simply a clump of cells.
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”
Psalm 139:13-16 (NIV)
Although early in development a baby may appear “unformed,” nonetheless that child is recognized by God who watches the baby grow.
As a researcher, I am keenly aware that many types of human cells are currently available for progressive study that do not raise the ethical questions surrounding embryonic stem cells. In my own research on Alzheimer's disease, I use a cell line that was derived from a brain tumor. Tumor derived cell lines as well as adult stem cells can provide extensive knowledge and understanding in the treatment of disease. Researchers who advocate embryonic stem cell research must admit that great strides have been and will continue to be made using alternatives to embryonic stem cells.
Critics who claim that the President’s decision was too restrictive insist that the use of embryonic stem cells from many sources offer the best hope for curing diseases. Yet few of them have acknowledged the unpredictable nature of research. While the results of research can exceed expectations, they often fall far short. Earlier this year, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine detailed the implantation of fetal brain tissue into the brains of individuals suffering with Parkinson's disease. In some cases, the treatment worsened the condition of the patient as the fetal cells grew out of control. Although many scientists claim embryonic stem cells hold great promise for curing disease, the jury is still out. There are no guarantees that they hold any greater promise than other cell lines.
President Bush set forth principles that can help shape the future of the debate. He acknowledged that these embryos are not simply clusters of cells but human life worthy of respect. If instead, we choose to define human life pragmatically insisting that these embryos will die anyway, what will be next? Should we harvest organs from the mentally handicapped or the elderly? Will we perform research experiments on the terminally ill or prisoners on death row? At least by permitting funding only for existing stem cell lines derived from embryos that have already been destroyed, Bush has drawn an ethical line that we would do well not to cross.
With respect to the 100,000 frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization, it must be recognized that these embryos are no different than those conceived in a mother’s womb. The only distinction is that they face a much more uncertain future. Will they be destroyed? Will they remain frozen forever? Or will they be allowed to grow and run and play like other children?
Unfortunately, the president’s decision is not the end of the complex bio-ethical dilemmas we will face as a nation. The specter of human cloning, designer babies, and genetic discrimination looms on the horizon. How we deal with those issues will largely depend on what we consider to be the value of human life. Are we just arrangements of molecules with no more significance than any other creature on earth? Or does a human being have an intrinsic value that because we are all created in the image of God?
Will we remain a nation that believes all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
is an associate professor of biology at Liberty University and has been studying Alzheimer's disease for over 10 years. He is also an adjunct professor at the Institute for Creation Research.