What’s the stem-cell controversy all about? Here’s a primer.
There are two kinds of stem cells—cells from which more complex cells and tissues develop. The first are so-called adult stem cells, taken from umbilical cord blood and other areas of the human body, such as bone marrow and muscles. The second kind comes from human embryos.
Where do the embryos come from? Two sources. First, from among the 400,000 frozen human embryos estimated to be stored at the nation’s fertility clinics; and, second, from cloning.
While there are no ethical dilemmas involved with harvesting adult stem cells, extracting embryonic stem cells involves killing human embryos.
Some researchers prefer embryonic over adult stem cells, saying they are pluripotent—or able to grow into any tissue of the human body. However, removed from their natural environment in a woman’s body, embryonic stem cells are hard to control and sometimes wildly grow into tumors.
So far, adult stem cells have provided treatments for at least 65 conditions in humans, providing relief for everything from brain cancer to heart damage, according to www.stemcellresearch.org. But no proven treatments for people have emerged from embryonic stem-cell research.
Yet embryonic stem cell research is being touted as a kind of holy grail of medical research, spurred by promises of miracle cures from well-meaning but misinformed people such as Nancy Reagan and the late Christopher Reeve.
While pro-lifers oppose embryonic research on ethical grounds, much of the public remains eager for cures, regardless of their source, and the well-funded biotech industry opposes any government restrictions on its race for medical panaceas.
There is good news, however. First, increasing numbers of researchers are coming up with new ways to produce pluripotent stem cells that do not involve the destruction of nascent human life. Second, a worldwide consensus is developing to protect the dignity of human life in the face of sometimes bewildering scientific developments.
Last March, the United Nations passed an anti-cloning resolution. This October, UNESCO’s General Conference unanimously approved a Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights that seeks to keep scientific research within an ethical framework that respects “human dignity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.”
Yes, Christians are right to defend the humanity and the dignity of the unborn by opposing abortion. But Nigel Cameron of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future warns that we can’t afford to ignore other issues, such as cloning.
Cameron tells Christianity Today: “Taking human life made in the image of God, wicked as it is, may not finally be as bad as making human life in your own.”