On March 9th President Obama’s executive order reversed the Bush administration’s long-standing restrictions on using federal funds for embryonic stem cells research and authorized the destruction of live human embryos in medical experimentation. The administration ignored the promising results from adult stem cell therapies. It reopened a Pandora’s box of bioethical concerns and raised vocal opposition from many Christian leaders, including 191 Catholic bishops.
Science is on the side of embryonic stem cell research, the president argued. Linking fetal stem cells experiments with “scientific integrity” in the order titled “Signing of Stem Cell Executive Order and Scientific Integrity“, Obama proclaimed:
we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.
But is the grandiose promise and lofty language supported by the facts?
Adult vs. Embryonic Stem Cells
Stem cell research focuses on both adult (somatic) stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are undifferentiated cells, found inside the tissues and organs of the body, that are capable of regenerating damaged tissue or self-renewing indefinitely. Under the right conditions, these cells have the potential to transform themselves into any other cell type.
Embryonic stem cells, as the name suggests, are derived from embryos. This process requires the harvesting and destruction of live human embryos that have been fertilized in vitro and then destroyed at the blastocyst stage, about four to five days into development.
Experimentation using adult stem cells raises no moral issues since no embryo is destroyed. Embryonic stem cells research on the other hand, requires the creation and destruction of living embryos and is fraught with moral difficulty. That’s why almost half of all Americans oppose it, many scientists and doctors have gone on the record to express their deep misgivings about the procedure, and why religious leaders condemn it.
Strong Opposition by Christian Churches
The Catholic Church (1.1 billion members world-wide), the Baptist churches (38 million believers), and the Orthodox Church (225 million faithful) condemn all forms of embryonic stem cell research.
In June of 2008, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in a statement devoted exclusively to the issue of embryonic stem cell research, reiterated the Church’s long-standing belief that human life is a precious gift from God and deserves protection and the greatest respect. The hierarchs condemned the direct killing of innocent “embryonic human beings” in the interest of research and opposed the use of taxpayer funds to support such policies. The USCCB statement made it very clear that harvesting embryonic cells is a deliberate act that kills human life, a “gravely immoral act.” (US Conference of Catholic Bishops, On Embryonic Stem Cell Research)
In October 2001, the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), in a statement titled “Embryonic Stem Cell Research in the Perspective of Orthodox Christianity”, also affirmed the sanctity of all human life, created in the image of God, which begins at the moment of conception. The Orthodox bishops denounced any research based on the destruction of embryonic cells, regardless of its potential benefits. (OCA, Embryonic Stem Cell Research in the Perspective of Orthodox Christianity) The Church’s position is clear that a live embryo is human life and not just a “clump of cells.” Destroying them to extract stem cells for research purposes is “morally and ethically wrong in every instance.” (OCA, Orthodox Church & Stem Cell Research)
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), also denounced Obama’s decision as a “sad day for the sanctity of all human life in America.” Mr. Land labeled the president’s action “open season on unborn babies” for endorsing the destruction of human life for the purpose of harvesting of cells and tissues in the interests of science.
From a moral standpoint, adult stem cells clearly provide the least controversial solution. But what about the science? Which approach has shown the most promise and provided the better medical results?
Adult Stem Cells Research: The Proven Medical Alternative
In 2007, the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics compiled and published a paper showing the impressive success of adult stem cell therapies. Titled “Peer-Reviewed References List Showing Applications of Adult Stem Cells that Produce Therapeutic Benefit to Human Patients,” The report documented over 70 treatments and 1,300 human clinical trials for adult stem cells research.
As of April 2007, adult stem cells research had produced treatments for approximately 26 types of cancers, 19 auto-immune diseases, 2 cardiovascular and 1 ocular problems, 3 immunodeficiencies, 3 neural degenerative diseases and injuries, 10 anemias and other blood conditions, 4 wounds and injuries, 5 different metabolic disorders, 2 types of liver disease, and 1 bladder disease. On the other hand, no embryonic stem cells research had made it past the animal testing phase.
A summary score card of these findings (adult stem cells = 70, embryonic stem cells = 0) is available here.
A brief overview of the available studies and articles published since April 2007, point to continuing successes and advances in the field.
[Adult] Stem cell breakthrough gives new hope to sufferers of muscle-wasting diseases – Mar. 9, 2009
[Adult] Stem Cell Breakthrough Could Solve Ethical Dilemmas – Mar. 2, 2009
Adult Stem Cell Research Reverses Effects of Parkinson’s Disease in Human Trial – Feb. 16, 2009
[Adult] Stem Cells Reset Immune System in Multiple Sclerosis Patients – Jan. 29, 2009
Adult Stem Cell Breakthrough: First Tissue-engineered Trachea Successfully Transplanted – Nov. 18, 2008
The suitability of adult stem cells for potential cures and the many medical successes have attracted significant financial support from private companies, universities, and venture capitalists. The same cannot be said about embryonic stem cells experimentation. This is due to the lack of any medical evidence where a malady has been healed using embryonic stem cells, the difficult ethical and moral issues raised, and the tendency of these treatments to produce tumors as a side effect, including the recent discovery of brain and spinal cord tumors in a young man in Israel undergoing fetal stem cell therapy.
The lack of private capital is the reason embryonic stem cell advocates are beating down the doors of government. In his criticism of California’s Proposition 71 (which authorized $3 billion of state funds to support embryonic experimentation), social ethicist Wesley J. Smith explained:
Think about it. If this were really likely to bring about cures any time soon, you would have to beat venture capitalists away with a stick. But the money to pay for cloning and embryonic stem cell research is not flowing from the private sector, so they want the public to pay for the research with borrowed money that is not accountable to the legislature.
Obama’s support of embryonic stem cell research is ideologically driven. The facts don’t support his promises or claims of scientific integrity. By lifting the federal ban he endorses highly speculative and unproven experimentation, using taxpayer dollars to fund it. His words ring with pseudo-religious fervor.
Even Nicholas Wade, writing in the New York Times, hinted that Obama’s adamant endorsement of embryonic stem cells experimentation is misguided. In a March 10, 2009 article titled “Rethink Stem Cells? Science Already Has” the NYT questioned the need for embryonic research when better advances have been made using adult cells that can be “reprogrammed to an embryonic state with surprising ease”. According to Dr. Kriegstein the advances made by biologist Shinya Yamanaka from Japan in reprogramming these cells, may “eventually eclipse the embryonic stem cell lines for therapeutic as well as diagnostics applications.”
In a surprising twist from the left-leaning paper, it also admitted that:
Despite an F.D.A.-approved safety test of embryonic stem cells in spinal cord injury that the Geron Corporation began in January, many scientists believe that putting stem-cell-derived tissues into patients lies a long way off. Embryonic stem cells have their drawbacks. They cause tumors, and the adult cells derived from them may be rejected by the patient’s immune system. Furthermore, whatever disease process caused the patients’ tissue cells to die is likely to kill introduced cells as well. All these problems may be solvable, but so far none have been solved.”
Coming on the heels of the promise last month to overturn the “conscience clause” that prevents pro-life hospitals and doctors from being forced to perform abortions, Obama’s lifting of the ban on federal funds for embryonic stem cell research is a troubling sign. Protecting life in its earliest stages and ignoring those who seek to protect it, takes a back seat to the designs of social utilitarians in this new administration. We’ve heard the promises before, some from leaders we would rather forget.