On April 11th, the Senate passed S.5, with a vote of 63 to 34. "S.5" is the alpha-numerical name given to the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007". The basic summary of the bill is this: "Amends the Public Health Service Act to require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct and support research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells that meet the following ethical requirements: (1) the stem cells were derived from human embryos donated from in vitro fertilization clinics for the purpose of fertility treatment and were in excess of the needs of the individuals seeking such treatment ; (2) the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded; and (3) such individuals donate the embryos with written informed consent and receive no financial or other inducements."
There are a lot of hopes and dreams riding on stem cell research. We’ve all seen footage of Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox begging us to explore the possibilities these cells might provide for finding cures for diseases and conditions that until now, were just the stuff of dreams. The political spin is that if we just have enough money to do enough research, then the lame will walk and the blind will see. My mama always told me that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is!
Yesterday I read an article about Madame Curie on The My Hero Project. Madame Curie (along with husband Pierre and friend, A. Henri Becquerel) won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for her discovery of radium. She discovered shortly after that the element in question was not pure radium, and in 1911, she was again awarded the Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, for isolating the pure radium. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Her discovery led to the invention of x-rays, in particular the portable x-ray machine. She is also the mother of radiation therapy. But what impressed me most about the article was the last paragraph:
"Great knowledge, however, is often a two-edged sword. Without the work she did, we might not have many modern cancer treatments or atomic clocks, or even the computer you’re viewing this on. But through her work on radioactivity, she can also be thought of as the mother of the atomic bomb."
Perhaps the effects of embryonic stem cell research will have the same far-reaching mushroom effect of the atomic bomb. Maybe we are not getting all the information. (We usually aren’t.) There are a lot of myths about stem cell research that are propagated, leading us to believe that this is the magical key to regeneration, a fountain of youth, if you will.
I don’t fully understand why intelligent, reasonable, caring people would want to destroy embryos (also known as babies!) when there are so many other alternatives that harm no one. Isn’t that the Hippocratic Oath, "First, do no harm"? Killing embryos is "harm" in its broadest sense. But beyond that, can embryonic cells do harm to their recipients? Consider this:
"The emerging truth in the lab is that pluripotent stem cells are hard to rein in. The potential that they would explode into a cancerous mass after a stem cell transplant might turn out to be the Pandora’s Box of stem cell research." (Ethicist Glen McGee of Univ. of Pennsylvania, quoted in E. Jonietz, "Innovation: Sourcing Stem Cells" Technology Review, January/February 2001, p. 32)
This concern is being borne out by science. A significant number of embryonic stem cells become cancerous. Brian Butcher, a research professor at Tulane University Health Sciences Center, has this to say: "We’re not against stem-cell research of any kind," said Butcher. "But we think there are advantages to using adult stem cells. For example, with embryonic stem cells, a significant number become cancer cells, so the cure could be worse than the disease. And they can be very difficult to grow, while adult stem cells are very easy to grow." (Read Entire Article)
Fools rush in. I think we need to be very careful about what we’re doing, and we need to be very specific about what works, and what doesn’t work. In the small amount of research I’ve done on the subject I’ve learned that stem cell research has great and wondrous potential. But it is in its infancy, and the media muddies the waters. Adult stem cells are easier and safer to use, and can be used just as many ways as embryonic stem cells. So WHY are we so determined to destroy embryos? I see so many bumper stickers on the highway that promote peace, and condemn the war in Iraq. They communicate that killing isn’t the way to stop the killing. So why don’t they understand that embryonic stem cell use is just more killing? More violence?
It’s hard not to get swept up in the media hype about a magical cure-all. But we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to make sure we slow down long enough to find the truth.