Stem cell ethics

Stem cell ethics

By John Armistead

Daily Journal

In their meeting Monday in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, Pope John Paul II urged President Bush to prohibit the use of human embryos for medical research.

Such procedures as the “creation for research purposes of human embryos” are evil, the pope said.

While he did not specifically refer to surplus embryos from fertility clinics, he did say that America “must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death.” In Catholic theology, conception occurs when the sperm and egg are united, which would include all embryos.

The president is still undecided about whether to maintain a ban on federal funding for research involving stem cells, which are derived from embryos. Embryos are destroyed in the procedure of extracting the stem cells.

The embryos in question, no bigger than a period at the end of a newspaper sentence, are surplus frozen embryos which were created in fertility clinics and are slated to be discarded.

Scientists believe embryonic stem cell research may unlock cures for a host of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and leukemia. The majority of scientists also maintain that stem cells derived from adults and from umbilical cord blood do not have nearly the same potential as stem cells from embryos.

Opponents to stem cell research consider the embryos to be human life and maintain that the process of destroying them is the same as the taking of human life.

Privately-funded research using stem cells will not be affected by Bush’s decision. Already this month scientists in Virginia have announced that they have created embryos from donated sperm and eggs in order to extract their stem cells. In Massachusetts, scientists are trying to clone human embryos for stem-cell production.

Many abortion opponents, such at Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate’s only physician, are strong supporters of stem-cell research from the surplus embryos, while, at the same time, they oppose the creation of embryos for research purposes.

Others see any stem-cell research as the “slippery slope,” which can lead to harvesting body parts from fully developed humans.

The ethics of the promise and the threat of stem cell research is dividing Americans as few other moral issues.

Tremendous potential

The hope which stem cell research offers is tremendous, according to Tupelo physician Dr. Dick White, an obstetrician-gynecologist.

“From a medical standpoint, they have the potential to help in a way that nothing else can, particularly with nerve and spinal cord injuries, and diabetes and many other things,” he said. “For people who’ve had strokes or spinal cord injuries, there’s no hope. This offers them the potential of healing.”

Stem cell research also may prove beneficial for burn patients.

“There is a real problem trying to make artificial skin,” White said. “The (stem) cells can be metamorphosed into new skin cells.”

White recognizes that the use of stem cells in research is a real ethical dilemma for many people, but feels some worries are unfounded.

“(Researchers) don’t have to have an never-ending supply,” he said. “Once the stem cells have been harvested from the blastocyst, which is a cluster of cells that hasn’t even had the genetic information turned on yet, they can be propagated. Once you start a cell line, you can continue to propagate that stem cell.”

Consequently, White doesn’t see the need to create embryos in order to harvest stem cells.

“The need for that is not there,” he said. “There’s probably as many as 100,000 that are not going to be used. That’s plenty.”

Dr. Mark Shepherd, a Tupelo endocrinologist, agrees that stem cell research offers tremendous hope in many areas of medicine.

“Stem cell research has the potential to lead to many wonderful things,” he said. “From my standpoint as an endocrinologist we have the potential to take stem cells and convert them into insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Our ability to give insulin is way inferior to what the body can do. It offers the hope of completely curing type I (juvenile) diabetes.”

At the same time, Shepherd recognizes the complications of stem cell research from an ethical perspective.

“I consider myself pro-life, and I struggle with the ethical issues,” he said. “This is a very frustrating issue to me as a Christian physician. Just when does life begin? But, I’m leaning toward the research.

“If you take an embryo that is destined for destruction and that is not going to become a human being, then there is the opportunity to use the stem cells from it in research and open up whole new avenues for treating disorders.”

Taking life, not saving life

As far the Catholic church is concerned, as seen from the pope’s statement to President Bush, even if those embryos in a petri dish or frozen and will never be used, they are still human life.

“We believe once the egg is impregnated by the sperm we already have human life, so to use that for us would be killing a life directly in order to save another,” said the Rev. Aedan Manning, S.T., pastor of St. John’s Catholic Church in Crystal Springs. “That’s why we are also opposed even to taking the frozen eggs that are left over.”

Manning is not convinced that stem cells from adults do not have the same potential as those from embryos or that researchers would restrict themselves to surplus frozen embryos.

“They would use them up pretty quickly,” he said. “Already in Norfork, Va., the scientists are harvesting stem cells from embryos created for that purpose. It becomes a money-making thing. People will be selling their eggs and sperm in order for the research to continue. That would be outrageous.

“You have to look at the moral teaching,” he said. “For us it is immoral to kill another human being to help someone else.”

Deciding what is human

The Rev. Donald Wildmon, president of Tupelo-based American Family Association, admits he thought long and hard before finally making up his own mind about stem-cell research.

“This is a complicated issue,” he said. “It’s not simple, and I still haven’t got it all together.”

But Wildmon now feels he has the basic aspects of the issue in mind.

“Life is being created to be destroyed,” he said. “If you follow this to its logical conclusion, you could apply it to a baby. You could buy any part of an aborted child you want. You’re on very, very dangerous ground as to the worth and dignity of a human being.”

Wildmon feels this could be one step toward other procedures that today are considered unthinkable.

“Morals don’t change 180 degrees in a day, but a degree at a time,” he said. “There’s a line, and, if you take it half an inch at a time, there’s no turning back. This is the line the Nazis went down when they decided some humans were human and some were not. Some day we’ll wake up and find some humans aren’t considered human because they are different.”

Putting a face

on those in need

Jack Reed Jr. and his wife Lisa are strong advocates of stem cell research. The Reeds, members of First United Methodist Church in Tupelo, have a 19-year-old son who suffers from juvenile diabetes.

“We’re passionate about it and have talked to all of our senators, congressmen, and have gotten friends to write President Bush,” said Jack Reed. “Once someone understands the issue, it’s not really a close call.”

The Reeds favor the proposal of Sen. Frist, which would authorize government-funded stem cell research on the surplus embryos from fertility clinics but would ban the creation of embryos for research and the cloning of embryos.

“I just think the Frist compromise is a well thought-out position,” said Lisa Reed. “These embryos are going to be discarded anyway, as many as 100,000. Why not use them for pro-life research?”

Government-funded research also would allow the government to oversee the research, according to Jack Reed.

“The best way to have the government stay on top of the ethical scenarios is to have the government regulate it,” he said. “This can guarantee it will be done in the most responsible way. That’s the answer to the slippery slope argument.”

Reed says many people do not recognize the seriousness of such illnesses as juvenile diabetes.

“These young people can’t live two days without insulin,” he said. “The pancreas is completely shut down. The typical life expectancy is 15 years less than anyone else, and their chances of amputations and blindness are great, too. It’s terrible if you’re the mother of a little child and have to stick that child with a needle eight times a day to check the blood and give the shot of insulin.”

“When you put a face on these illnesses and things like spinal cord injuries, it’s hard not to favor it,” said Lisa Reed.

The Reeds consider their position a pro-life stance.

“One can be pro-life and against abortion and be for using these embryos for stem cell research,” said Jack Reed. “That’s our understanding of it, and one can accommodate both anti-abortion and be for the use of these embryonic stem cells from the in vitro clinics to save lives.”

“It’s not like they are planted in a uterus,” said Lisa Reed. “It’s not a viable life.”

Jack Reed said, “There’re a lot of people who attend church regularly who are trying to live as Jesus would have us live who believe this is a life-giving opportunity.”

A delicate balance

The Rev. Warren Black, pastor of Oxford-University United Methodist Church agrees that there needs to be oversight to the research process.

“I think that (the research) is a tool that science and faith can work together on with governmental oversight,” he said. “I think in terms of the American Medical Association, faith groups, a good cross-section of folks with expertise looking at this and giving feed-back to the government.”

As for himself, Black favors allowing the research to go forward.

“There is a delicate balance here,” he said. “The church recognizes that there is sometimes a tragic conflict of life with life. But, this is such a great opportunity to enhance healing and alleviate suffering so that people are not trapped forever with these diseases. I think we can’t back away from the research.”

Still evaluating

Many people, like the Rev. McCoy Franklin, have not yet reached firm decisions on many of the issues involved.

“I’m still working on it,” said Franklin, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (USA) in Tupelo. “But I would have some reservations about producing embryos solely for the purpose of research and/or using them for medical purposes on someone else. But in the case of embryos already in existence which would likely be destroyed, I do see that it does hold out hope.”

Franklin feels that whether the days-old embryo is a life is one of the issues which must be wrestled with.

“If you believe that an embryo is a person that certainly would influence how you felt about this,” he said. “Thinking that an embryo is human life or potential human life causes you to treat it with seriousness and respect.”

The Rev. Ron Richardson, director of pastoral care at North Mississippi Medical Center, is also undecided about the matter of stem-cell research.

“I have read some of the opinions of the ethicists,” he said. “It’s such a fine line between use and abuse. I am all for using the cells to help those with Parkinson’s disease, but the abuse is, how far will this go? What kind of guidelines are there to keep it from getting into unethical areas?”

Richardson urges caution.

“It would be easy hearing what the scientists are saying to jump on the bandwagon without looking at some of the fine print about this,” he said. “I’m afraid a lot of people don’t look at the complexity of the issue. Let’s not jump to conclusions.”

Richardson says he doesn’t want to make up his mind until he knows more about what is involved.

“We need to be very cautious,” he said. “We need to be able to make an informed decision about what this has to offer.”