Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reaffirming ethical medical research

The London Free Press
By Rory Leishman
In the aftermath of the recent breakthrough in somatic cell reprogramming that has rendered embryonic stem cell research virtually obsolete, all of us – scientists and non-scientists alike – would do well to reconsider and reaffirm a cardinal principal of Western Civilization: Thou shalt not deliberately kill an innocent human being.
For the past several years, the practitioners of embryonic stem cell research have systematically violated this most basic of moral axioms, by killing human embryos for the purpose of extracting their pluripotent stem cells. Proponents of the procedure held out the promise, which was never fulfilled, that embryonic stem cell research might lead to cures for a variety of disabilities and diseases ranging from spinal cord paralysis to multiple sclerosis.
It happens that we all began life as a human embryo – that is to say, as a tiny, developing human being from fertilization to the end of the first eight weeks of gestational age. The hard and inescapable truth is that in harvesting human embryonic stem cells, researchers inevitably kill the donor human being.
As a proponent of the sanctity of human life, United States President George W. Bush cannot condone such death-dealing medical research, no matter how promising, so he announced in 2001 that his administration would restrict funding for human embryonic stem cell research to 60 already existing stem cell lines “where the life and death decision has already been made.” In response, many critics maligned Bush as a mindless Christian with a heartless lack of compassion for all of the patients who desperately hope for a cure derived from embryonic stem cell research.
Following an extensive debate on this same issue, the Parliament of Canada enacted legislation in 2004 which authorizes medical researchers to harvest human embryonic stem cells from so-called surplus human embryos produced for reproduction in an in vitro fertilization clinic. Given this precedent, one can only wonder what other human beings might next be designated as surplus to Canadian needs and consigned to death for the potential benefit of others.
Meanwhile, in November, two teams of researchers, one led by Shinya Yamanaka in Japan and the other by James Thompson in Wisconsin, confirmed that they have succeeded in reprogramming adult skin cells to behave like pluripotent embryonic stem cells that can be coaxed into growing into all the main tissue types in the body including muscles, neurons and heart cells. Dr. Robert Lanza, one of the foremost authorities on stem cell research, has hailed this achievement as “a tremendous scientific milestone – the biological equivalent of the Wright brothers’ first airplane.”
Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the secretariat for pro-life activities for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was no less enthusiastic: “It’s a win-win,” he exclaimed. “The scientists can get all the benefits they think they might get from embryonic stem cells, and the rest of us can applaud and support it.”
While it sometimes seemed that only theologically orthodox Christians and Jews were concerned about the fundamental ethical dimensions of the debate over embryonic stem cell research, that was not the case. Thompson says he, too, has always had concerns about killing human embryos. He told the New York Times: “If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.”
Yamanaka, a father of two, concurs. Eight years ago, he first looked down a microscope at a human embryo in an in vitro fertilization. In recalling this revelatory experience, he said: “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”
Thanks mainly to Yamanaka and Thompson, we now know that, indeed, there is a better and easier way to acquire pluripotent human stem cells for medical research. It follows that there is no longer any scientific or medical excuse for continuing with death-dealing, human embryonic stem cell research. The sooner this morally debased line of scientific inquiry is stopped, the better.

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