Stem Cell Research: On Again, Off Again

Industry Insights from Paul Meade, M. Sc, MPH

Just last week, the Mayo Clinic announced landmark research regarding the use of stem cells to repair damaged heart tissue. A significant breakthrough for people with heart damage is finally on the horizon, which will impact millions of people across the globe. But only a week later, a judge has ruled that, under the law passed by former President George W. Bush banning the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, the use of destroyed embryos from fertility clinics violates a federal statute. Once again, the medical research community has had to deal with yet another setback with regard to the use of stem cells.

The opponents of stem cell research claim that using an embryo that has been destroyed by a fertility clinic to obtain stem cells amounts to “taking a human life.” It seems rather puzzling that some people, who devote their entire lives to doing good and serving the needy, stop short of allowing the medical research community to achieve significant advances in eliminating diseases because of an endless battle to define life. Many devoutly religious people travel to developing nations to become missionaries and offer help to those in need, yet they can somehow overlook the tremendous good from stem cell research that can help the medically disadvantaged. Of course, those very people would argue that all of this good comes without “taking a human life.” Once again, we are faced with an argument of definition.

For most of civilization, we have defined life as beginning at the birth of an infant. Then, with concerns over abortion, the United States Supreme Court in the Roe vs Wade ruling declared that life was defined as beginning at three months post-conception. A later revision re-defined life’s inception to be “when the fetus is viable,” and we have been struggling with that definition ever since. So, for the purposes of drawing up a working definition, we use a set number of weeks post-conception to define “viable.” Now we have moved considerably closer to the moment of conception by arguing once the sperm and egg have united to form an embryo, whether it be in vivo or in vitro, we have a human life. And destroying those few cells constitutes “taking a human life” in the minds of some people.

Of course, we are all entitled to our beliefs and our definitions, but when such definitions prohibit medical research from discovering cures for many diseases affecting millions of lives it can be perplexing as to who is “taking a human life.” If a young child dies from a rare illness that could have been cured through stem cell research and gene therapy, can we really equate that with the destruction of a few cells that were biologically programmed to unite? Would those opponents of stem cell research dying from a damaged heart that could have been saved from the stem cell research conducted at the Mayo Clinic willingly go to their graves because of their tenacity to hold on to a definition of life?

The irony of all of this debate is that those unused embryos from the fertility clinics are being destroyed anyway, whether the stem cells are being harvested for research or not. Since, according to the definition of some people, such destruction of these embryos amounts to “taking a human life,” wouldn’t it be nice to salvage some good from that destruction so this biological union of cells could actually save some lives?

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