Stem cells are test of responsible scientific freedom

BY ERIC MINK

For some people, there are no questions, only an answer: The existence of a human person begins when a human sperm penetrates a human egg. In this view, legality and morality apply equally to a disoriented senior with Alzheimer’s, a college sophomore giving himself an insulin shot before a test, a wailing full-term newborn whisked into isolation or a microscopic grouping of five-day-old human cells called a blastocyst. All are full human persons, and the deliberate destruction of any of them is murder.

Most people, though, have questions: Would it be right for society to treat the five-day-old blastocyst — which has no body, no brain, no heart, no spinal cord, no nervous system, no placenta — as the legal and moral equivalent of the baby, the young student and the older woman?

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If medical science researchers need to destroy the blastocyst and use the five-day-old cells in their work to understand and perhaps discover how to treat the senior’s advanced dementia, the student’s diabetes and the newborn’s defective immune system, is it right for government to forbid the scientists from doing so?

Is it possible for a decent, civilized society to pursue such research responsibly — with care, caution and respect?

On March 9, President Barack Obama reversed a policy of George W. Bush’s administration that had severely limited the kinds of research federal scientists could conduct with human embryonic stem (hES) cells or that the government could pay others to do.

Stem cells of various kinds, including embryonic, appear to be intimately involved in the processes of human cell creation, development and repair, as well as the onset and progression of debilitating diseases. Within the cells’ genetic structures may lie the keys to unleashing the power of the body to overcome those diseases and reverse their terrible effects. Embryonic stem cells are derived from material taken from blastocysts.

Although a federal law still prohibits using government funds to destroy human blastocysts to produce new stocks of hES cells, Obama’s order vastly broadens federally-funded research that can be done with hES cells produced without government support. He gave the National Institutes of Health no more than four months to develop guidelines for the research.

The NIH should look to the extensive work already done by the National Academies of Science, the prestigious independent institution chartered by Congress in 1863 to advise the federal government on scientific and technological issues.

In April 2005, a special committee of the academies issued “Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” a 265-page report that includes an in-depth examination of the ethical and moral dimensions of such research:

“The principal ethical and religious objection to hES cell research is that the derivation of hES cells involves the destruction of the blastocyst, which is regarded by some people as a human being,” the report states. “Like all scientific work involving human embryos, hES cell research raises profound questions about the status of the human embryo, the extent to which it is justifiable to use human embryos to expand knowledge and ameliorate human suffering, and the conditions under which these goals may be pursued. Throughout its deliberations, the committee was keenly aware that some view human embryos as morally equivalent to born human persons….

“In contrast, many religious traditions — Islam, Judaism, and numerous Protestant denominations — do not recognize the human embryo before 40 days after conception as an entity that should be accorded the same moral status as a person…. To be sure, in these traditions, the human embryo may have greater moral status than other collections of cells, but not so much that its cells may not be respectfully applied toward the other goals to which the faithful are committed…. This diversity of deeply held views must be respected. However, that respect does not require that we, as a society, prohibit hES cell research, but rather that our society create institutions for the oversight of this research that, with due moral seriousness, take into account the special status of the human embryo.”

Even within religions that condemn hES cell research, some people wrestle with competing values and reach their own conclusions — as thoughtful people of faith do on many issues.

For example, in the 2006 election in which Missouri voters narrowly approved a state constitutional amendment protecting the legality of stem cell research, 45 percent of voting Catholics and 34 percent of people who identified themselves as born-again or Evangelical Christians voted in favor of the amendment.

Last year, the National Academies released a 65-page update of its guidelines, dealing in considerable detail with the discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells — non-embryonic stem cells that are manipulated with chemicals and viruses and then seem to display the greater developmental flexibility of hES cells. Some people who oppose hES cell research claim this recent development makes hES cell research unnecessary.

“It is far from clear at this point,” the update states, “which cell types will prove to be the most useful for regenerative medicine, and it is likely that each will have some utility…. Much further research will be required on both hES and iPS cells to develop the required procedures, including drawing appropriate comparisons between them.”

Fish around long enough on the Web site of the National Institutes of Health, and you can find brief summaries of stem cell research projects from 2002 to this month. What you see in the capsule descriptions are these phrases: “provides a first step…,” “in the hope of one day producing…,” “if this technique works…,” “may now be able to generate…,” “hope to identify…,” “scientists hope to learn more….”

That’s why scientists conduct research: to learn more. Society must oversee their work to ensure that it proceeds responsibly, respectfully and for worthy scientific purposes. But neither society nor scientists themselves can know in advance which kinds of research will produce benefits for all humankind.

Most recently, Eric Mink was the commentary editor and an op-ed columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Email the author at [email protected]