Monday, August 28, 2006

Stem-Cell Research : The Fertility Clinic Bait & Switch Game

A column on this topic by Dr. Sheryl Pitner, president of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research, was published in the Omaha World-Herald August 12, 2006. A caller to my radio show suggested that I put it on my blog. I agree. Click immediately below to read it.

Harold W. Andersen (Aug. 6 column) says people who are against the destruction of human embryos from fertility clinics for embryonic stem-cell research don't understand the situation.

We get it: Destroy the embryos, and get their stem cells before they die in frozen storage or are discarded.

But the debate goes much deeper.

Central to it is the fundamental rule of medical research: It is unethical to experiment with humans when the likely result is harm or death to the subject. That rule is not waived because the proposed subject appears doomed to an imminent death.

Mr. Andersen said extraction of stem cells makes for "a better end for the embryo" by producing societal benefit. Shall we help death-row inmates make a better end of their lives and benefit society by harvesting their organs or using the inmates for medical research because they are going to die relatively soon? Even convicted murderers are granted the human dignity of not being exploited in death as raw material for donor organs or medical experimentation.

Let's look at some facts.

Less than 3 percent (11,000) of the estimated 400,000 frozen embryos are currently donated for research. Many of the remaining embryos will not be donated. Some couples want more children and will implant the remaining embryos. Others do not support embryonic stem-cell research and will choose not to donate.

Not all frozen embryos survive the thawing process. Not all will yield a successful stem-cell line - estimates are that one in 100 will.

To use embryonic stem cells for treatments, the DNA needs to closely match that of the patient. Embryos in fertility clinics do not have enough genetic diversity to match a significant portion of the population.

To use embryos to study how a particular disease develops, the embryo needs to have the disease.

Asking for the approval to use embryos in fertility clinics may lead some to the false belief that this will end the need to produce embryos solely for research. If there is a breakthrough with embryonic stem cells, this would increase the need and fuel the cry for mass production and destruction of embryos.

Then things would become more political. If embryonic stem-cell advocates were to soften the public to accept the killing of embryos in fertility clinics for research, they would have a foot in the door to encourage the public to take the next step. That next step is production of living human embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them for research.

Mr. Andersen's reference to surplus embryos as "unneeded" by their "owners" treats these lives as properties or commodities.

Don't be fooled by those who insist that a newly formed embryo is nothing more than a blob of undifferentiated cells. We know from the science of embryology that every human being begins at fertilization. Everything that makes the new being not only human, but also one of a kind, is there from the start. A lifelong journey of growth and development has begun.

Whether an embryo successfully implants in the womb is irrelevant. Some human lives last only a few hours after fertilization. Some lives last a century or more. You are a 100 percent living human being wherever you are on that spectrum.

Why do people who fight so passionately for the underdog on other issues go limp on this one? A victim's lack of development or awareness does not excuse harm to that victim. A society that condones such exploitation of the vulnerable by the strong is a society on its way to destroying its communal character.

Meanwhile, science is producing life-saving stem-cell treatments with adult stem cells, which are taken from the body, umbilical cord blood and placental blood without harm to the donor. At the time last year when Mr. Andersen dismissed adult stem-cell research as a "sop," adult stem cells had been used to successfully treat 58 diseases in humans. Now, it's up to 72.

Embryonic stem-cell research is holding steady at zero.

So don't fall for the hype. The battle against neurodegenerative diseases does not depend on the destruction of a few thousand embryos in fertility clinics. Support the ethical option that produces results: adult stem-cell research.

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