A Senate hearing on Wednesday, September 29, continued the debate on stem-cell research and technological advances in science. Panelist Richard Doerflinger, a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened the debate with a statement related to Nazi crimes against humanity: “The Nuremberg Code and other declarations have affirmed that human life and dignity must not be trampled on in the pursuit of medical knowledge.”
At the hearing, the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space dove into the question of when life begins with two panels of experts to address the issue of embryonic stem-cell research. One panel began from the ethical perspective; the other discussed the scientific perspective.
“Embryonic stem-cell research has not yielded a single cure,” said Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow of the Family Research Council and former professor of life sciences at Indiana State University.
Dr. George Daley of Harvard School of Medicine countered: “Although research on adult stem cells is enormously promising, adult stem cells are not the biological equivalents of embryonic stem cells, and adult stem cells will not satisfy all scientific and medical needs.”
The hearing emphasized the complexity and controversial aspects of the process of stem-cell research. According to Fact Sheet on Stem-cell Research, by Elaine McGinnis of Concerned Women for America, “Stem cells begin as ‘blanks’ without a dedicated task, but with an ability to become specialized.” For that reason, stem-cell research has attracted much interest worldwide; a stem cell can become a skin cell, a muscle cell, or a nerve cell, and many times repair or replace damaged tissues and body cells.
There are two different types of stem-cell research: adult and embryonic. Embryonic stem cells are harvested from living embryos, usually 5-7 days old. The embryos can come from in vitro fertilization clinics or from donors. When the stem cells are removed from the embryo, it is inevitably destroyed. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are found in bone marrow, the liver, epidermis, retina, the brain, even fat taken from liposuction, causing no harm to the donor.
Scientific evidence has shown challenges with both adult and embryonic stem-cell research. Adult stem cells are less plentiful than embryonic cells, and cannot adapt to different tissues as embryonic cells can. Embryonic cells coming from a random donor, however, are likely to be rejected after transplantation, or could even cause tumors.
Dr. Janice Crouse, senior fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute, commented, “While embryonic stem cells are exceptionally adaptable, scientists can’t always predict exactly how they will adapt. That unpredictability and inability to scientifically control embryonic stem cells leads, inevitably, to questions about the practicality of using them.”
Dr. Marc Hedrick of Macropore Biosurgery of San Diego, California, however, has seen major progress in adult stem-cell research. The “use of fat or adipose tissue as a source of stem cells is a low-cost, high-volume alternative to other stem cell sources,” he stated.
One cup of adipose tissue yields about 1 million stem cells, and could potentially treat diseases like heart disease, strokes, degenerative spinal diseases and vascular diseases. Committee Chairman Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) supported Dr. Hedrick’s statement, saying, “Forty-five medical conditions have been cured by adult stem cells.”
More importantly, many panelists acknowledged that the issue of embryonic stem cells is more a moral or ethical issue than a scientific issue. Some panelists contended that biologically, as well as in some religious views, the embryos are not human life until they are implanted in a womb.
However, Mr. Doerflinger said, “The reality of the embryo as a living organism of the human species has actually been underscored by recent biological discoveries.” He cited examples such as a 1999 National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) agreement that “human embryos deserve respect as a form of human life,” and a 2002 acknowledgement by the National Academy of Sciences that “‘In medical terms,’ the embryo is a ‘developing human from fertilization’ onwards.”
Wednesday’s hearing was just a glance at the recent developments in stem-cell research, and the scientific and ethical issues it raises. Almost every panelist agreed that adult stem-cell research is seeing high gains and positive outcomes, while embryonic stem-cell research was not received as warmly. A comment by Mr. Doerflinger summed up the issue well by saying, “Every living member of the human species, including the human embryo, must be treated with the respect due to a human person.”
Eva Arlia is an intern with the Beverly LaHaye Institute.
i) Rev. Dr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Stem-Cell Research, Cloning & Human Embryos (Washington, D.C.: Family Research Council, 2004), 1-3.