Compromise needed for stem-cell research


Eventually there has to be some place for accommodation between religion and science that would permit promising stem cell research to go forward at a level and pace that has a chance of producing results so potentially beneficial to all of us. That has to be the hope of anyone who has watched a loved one disintegrate slowly and painfully from Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or some other debilitating monster.

But that is just the opinion of one who is neither fully versed on the scientific probabilities nor fully able to comprehend the almost mindless objections of those who seem uncompromisingly committed to oppose the process on religious grounds. Thus, like most Americans, I am caught in the middle of this emotional turmoil, longing for a the promising solution to some of the plagues of older age while at the same time believing firmly in the ethical standards that protect our lives.

It seems to me that researchers at Advanced Cell Technology offered an exciting possibility of accommodation in a study showing that it is possible to remove a single cell from a human embryo for the development of stem cell colonies without destroying the donor embryo. It is common now to remove one cell from an embryo at its eight to 10 cell development without damaging it to check for genetic defects before the embryo is implanted in the womb. The previous approach to stem cell research was to allow an embryo to grow to 150 or so cells and then remove all the stem cells, destroying the embryo.

Obviously the scientists who conducted the studies in this approach thought they had found an answer to the objections of those who regard stem cell research as the destruction of human life and have stymied efforts at federal funding both in the White House and on Capitol Hill. But they are woefully shortsighted when it comes to the political implications. After all, they are scientists dealing with abstracts and not the certainties provided by religious doctrine.

Their report in Nature magazine hadn’t been public many hours before the forces who want no part of such effort for any reason no matter how potentially beneficial to mankind denounced the concept, and the President’s Council on Bioethics challenged the process as "ethically unacceptable." The White House issued a statement that "any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical questions."

Although there seems to have been no record of a single cell taken from the earliest stages of an embryo ever growing into a mammal, the possibility that it might sometime was enough for the religious scientists to immediately object. Their motivation has been clear from the start. Any compromise means eventual removal of most restrictions on the research _ the camel’s nose under the tent and all that. The next thing one knows this will be a country of clones. Hello Frankenstein. I’m sorry, but government policy should not be based on religious considerations.

Never mind that there are huge numbers of surplus embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics. Better that they be quietly destroyed than used for life-saving research. No amount of persuasion seems to be able to convince opponents otherwise despite the obvious incongruity of their arguments. So strong has been their voice that scientific hopes of finding federal financial support has been precluded by a decade-old rider on appropriations for the Department of Health and Human Services that prevents the use of federal funds for research in which human embryos are "discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death."

The Advanced Cell Technology approach, according to researchers, is somewhat tedious and clumsy, but shows that those in the scientific community aren’t entirely unrealistic or oblivious to the ethical and legal questions raised by the use of human embryos for purposes other than helping solve infertility problems. They seem to be ready to do what is necessary to advance what they firmly believe has the potential to improve life by relieving millions from the threat of debilitating diseases.

To those of us who are concerned about the quality of life on earth there has to be a compromise here. The unyielding objections to progress by the super religious have become all too shrill and influential. With caution the one-cell approach seems a reasonable start toward accommodation.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)