THIS CATHOLIC’S VIEW
By Thomas J. Reese
It is no surprise that the Obama administration is lifting the restrictions put on embryonic stem cell research by President George W. Bush in 2001 when he authorized the use of federal funds for such research. President Obama made clear during the campaign that he would do this. He has been convinced by those doing the research that it will lead to medical breakthroughs for dealing with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. The same belief led 59 percent of California voters to pass a $3 billion ballot initiative in 2004 to fund stem cell research over a 10-year period.
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research argue that embryos are human beings and that they should no more be killed for research than adult humans should be killed to provide parts for transplants. The same question of the value and status of the embryo and fetus is at the heart of the debate over abortion.
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research also point to significant breakthroughs in adult stem cell research, such as the recent development of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) that do not require the use of human embryos but can be made from skin tissue. Not only does such a process lack the ethical problems of using embryonic stem cells, it also has the medical advantage of producing cells that are less likely to be rejected since they come from the same body to which they will be returning.
In the past, the process of developing iPS cells was questioned because of the use of viruses in the process. These viruses might cause the transplanted cells to become cancerous after the transplant. This problem may have been eliminated by recently announced procedures that do not require viruses to transform adult cells into these iPS cells.
Granted that the administration is going to allow the use of embryonic stem cells, how can the decision be made less ethically repugnant to those who find their use objectionable? Are there limits that can be put on embryonic stem cell research that most people, even their supporters, would recognize as appropriate? Here are some suggestions.
1. Embryos for research cannot be bought and sold. Embryos should not be created for the sole purpose of research. They should only come from excess embryos produced at fertility clinics that are scheduled to be destroyed anyway.
2. Before using human embryonic stem cells, researchers should show that the research they are doing cannot be done with non-embryonic stem cells.
3. Research using embryonic stem cells should aim at advancing toward the goal of using only non-embryonic stem cells in regenerative medicine. In other words, once the process of developing adult stem cells for treatments has been shown to be safe and reliable, any research in embryonic stem cells should be able to move seamlessly into the use of adult stem cells leaving the ethical problems behind.
These rules will not satisfy those who find any use of embryos ethically objectionable, but it will indicate that the Obama administration is trying to find some middle ground that gives some respect to the many Americans who find such research repugnant. In short, if science shows a way out of this ethical dilemma, we should follow it.
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is Senior Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
By Thomas J. Reese |
March 7, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
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