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Stem cell funding renews debate

NCR Staff

Reacting to the Aug. 23 announcement by the National Institutes of Health that the U.S. government intends to begin providing funding for cell experimentation using human embryos, and to the recommendation by Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer in Britain, that cloning of human embryos should be allowed there for the purpose of obtaining such cells, bioethicists are calling for a larger understanding of the social and ethical implications of the research.

“The moral obligation to save as many people as possible must be considered in a very broad framework,” said Thomas A. Shannon, professor of religion and social ethics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “Like all bioethical considerations, you can’t argue it in a vacuum.”

Condemned by the Vatican as “gravely immoral,” the research approved for U.S. funding involves the removal from embryos of “stem cells,” so called because they have the potential to become any of the body’s cells.

In England, scientists will now be allowed to clone embryonic cells to obtain stem cells for research use.

The U.S. guidelines for those seeking federal funding stipulate that embryos are to be taken only from among those discarded in fertility treatments, and only after patients have consented to allowing their use for research. The reproductive procedure known as in vitro fertilization often produces “spare” embryos.

Federal law, furthermore, prohibits government-funded research that requires destroying or harming embryos. As a way to circumvent the law, National Institutes of Health guidelines require that stem cells first be harvested by private laboratories and then taken to federally funded labs.

Daniel Perry of the Alliance for Aging Research has written that approximately 128.4 million Americans could potentially benefit by treatments derived from stem cell research for conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, cancer, spinal cord injuries or birth defects.

Cardinal Thomas Winning of Glasgow, chairman of the Bioethics Committee of the Catholic Bishops of Great Britain and Ireland, explained the church’s position in an Aug. 16 statement: “Obtaining stem cells from a human embryo is morally wrong because it involves the destruction of a human life.”

Some bioethicists take a different view. “The three-day-old embryo is not a single individual,” Shannon said. “You have human nature in its basic form, but the biological prerequisites of a central nervous system and individuality are missing. … The moral argument is not murder, but killing … and not every act of killing is unjustified.”

James J. Walter, who holds the Austin and Ann O’Malley chair in bioethics, at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said that in the future people who receive therapies from stem-cell research might not have to worry that they are becoming accomplices to an immoral act. The St. Louis Archdiocesan Pro-Life Office has declared that using the hepatitis A vaccine, which originates from cells of an aborted fetus, is acceptable because there are no other alternatives to check the spread of the disease. Walter wonders if this reasoning might someday apply to those who benefit from future breakthroughs in stem cell research.

There may however be an alternative to using stem cells derived from embryos in research, one the Vatican supports. A little more than a year ago it was discovered that stem cells taken from adults, most often from an adult’s bone marrow, could prove to be a viable alternative. “The issue now, is into how many cell types can adult cells be differentiated. We won’t know that until the research is done,” said Walter, noting that Johns Hopkins and George Washington University have made significant progress in such research.

Thomas H. Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a medical ethics research center in Garrison, N.Y., believes that both forms of research should go forward. “The answer is that we simply don’t know if adult stem cells will turn out to be as useful. You’d be putting things off for years, if not decades.” Murray is a member of President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission that recommended federal funding be approved for embryonic cell research.

Murray believes it will not be long before the cloning of embryos for research purposes recently approved in Britain will be legal in the United States as well. “I would say within the next five to 10 years it will be approved here.” He said that his committee had not recommended that cloning be approved to date because all safety concerns haven’t yet been satisfied.

But the potential benefits of cloning stem cells are significant, he said. Cloning cells and putting the materials back in the body will end the risk of the body’s rejecting cells. “Even if we don’t permit cloning for reproductive purposes we will certainly allow this kind of research.”

Edmund Fischer, who won the 1992 Nobel prize for medicine for work in cellular research, responding to the church’s criticism of the work with stem cells, said in an interview published Aug. 27 in Italy’s La Repubblica, “The condemnation of this research appears similar to that which once confronted autopsy. Remember? The Catholic hierarchy was against the study of the bodies of the dead and for some centuries persecuted doctors who tried it.”

According to Shannon, funding for embryo stem cell research must be seen in a larger social context as well as an ethical one.

“We are in the middle of a change in health care technology. Part of rethinking health care in the United States is rethinking high tech aspects. Millions have no health insurance -- we must see that as a context for how we use funding. … Should we be putting our money in more preventive kinds of things?”

Gill Donovan’s e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000