Stem Cell Research: A double-edged Sword
By Ryan VanDriel (Surrey/Cloverdale ARPA) April 2002
As you read this, legislation is being drafted in our nation’s capital over a very controversial issue: stem cell research. What is it and why the controversy? What has our government done on the matter and what is our position? How can you offer the government your input? Well, stem cells are “blank” or “mother” cells that can be extracted, and, when coaxed in a lab setting, can develop into any one of the 200+ different tissue types in the human body.
It’s possible for scientists to duplicate these cells in large numbers and, with injection, to treat injuries and a wide range of genetic & degenerative diseases. Scientists believe that the flexibility and adaptability of these stem cells mean they can be used to replace tissues that have been destroyed by heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, to name only a few. The potential for alleviating suffering and pain is huge.
So why the controversy? A good deal of the controversy and ethical problems come from where scientists are getting these stem cells. Stem cells are available from a number of sources:
1) human embryos: the small cluster of stem cells that makes up the embryo at its earliest stage can be extracted by scientists. The extraction process kills the embryo, snuffing out a developing human life. Such embryos, produced at fertility clinics, are considered ‘surplus’ or ‘leftover’ Until very recently, stem cells derived from embryos were traditionally thought best. They were initially considered to be the most flexible, the most available & the most easily coaxed for development into various tissues. Recent research is showing that embryonic stem (ES) cells are not as reliable as many first thought. ES cells can ‘go haywire’ and become unpredictable & uncontrollable once injected into the patient, with disastrous results.
2) aborted remains
3) adults: It might surprise you to know that adults have reservoirs of stem cells. They can be found in our bone marrow, in our skin, in umbilical cord blood, in brain tissue and even in our fat. Adult stem cells, which have only been explored relatively recently, are proving to be almost as flexible as the ES cells (without the volatility & unpredictability), and, although more difficult to extract, are less controversial. McGill University researchers have taken stem cells from adult human skin and successfully developed muscle, fat & brain tissue. A patient with chronic heart disease, only 4 weeks after an injection of adult stem cells, experienced heart muscle regrowth in the damaged areas. In the face of the growing potential that adult stem cells offer, researchers need not and should not be using embryos as a source for stem cells!
One can quickly see why these first two sources of stem cell research are wrong and must be opposed. ES cell research necessitates the termination of a human life. Whether the source is embryos or aborted remains, the end result is a discarded embryo, an early human life is intentionally destroyed. This is a clear devaluation of God-given life. Many feel that since aborted remains and ‘leftover’ embryos will be discarded anyway, society should make use of them. Ask the average person what he thinks of ES cell research, and he will likely reply, as Francis Hill comments,
“Anything that can cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or diabetes, is incredibly good. Yes, I know that there’s some controversy – you’re not going to try to tell me those embryonic cells are babies. I saw a picture of a 3-day-old embryo on the tip of a pin, you know, magnified 1000 times. It was really just a small clump of cells. It’s almost ridiculous that people could say that it’s a baby. Besides, they’re going to be flushed down the drain, like they did at that fertility clinic in England. At least with ES cell research, they won’t be wasted”
These same people would argue that this is simply a case of doing that which is good; a situation where the end justifies the means. Little regard is paid by ES cell research proponents to the moral problems that present themselves when an embryo is exterminated. Very simply, a human life is taken. Our society needs to recognize that a human life starts at conception, and that this human life deserves the right to be protected from harm. ES cell research promotes the planned destruction of a human in the name of research. This is unethical and, very simply, is a crime against humanity.
How has our Canadian government responded? How has it attempted to strike a balance between the promotion of research to probe the full potential of stem cells with the ethical & moral problems that much of this research presents? It might surprise you to know that Canadian parliament hasn’t passed any legislation yet on this issue. A draft bill (only a rough copy of legislation that will likely be changed) was issued last year, and is called “Assisted Human Reproduction and Related Research”. Our Federal Health Minister, Ann McLellan, has promised to introduce legislation by May 10th. At this point, the bill is still at the committee stage, and our government is accepting submissions from individuals and interested parties on what direction the legislation should go. Our government is asking for your input.
A committee of the House of Commons, made up of members of all the major political parties, has proposed some changes to the bill. Arguably the boldest and the most courageous political response so far to this draft bill has come from the Canadian Alliance party in their minority report that, among other things, urges the following:
that the final legislation clearly recognize the human embryo as human life.
that the final legislation make it clear that, in practice and in regulation, where there is conflict between ethical acceptability and scientific possibility, that the ethically acceptable course of action shall prevail.
that the final legislation place a 3-year prohibition on embryonic stem cell research, and that the government strongly encourage its granting agencies and the scientific community to place the emphasis on adult (post-natal) stem cell research.
A few weeks ago, the Canadian Institute of Health Research (a federal government funding agency for medical research) produced ethical guidelines that researchers must meet to be eligible for federal funding. What is especially backwards about these guidelines is that they were released even before our own Parliament passed legislation on stem cell research. A Liberal backbencher says, “It is the role of Parliament and the public, not researchers, to determine the ethical limits of research” (Globe & Mail, Mar 5/02, p.A7)
According to CIHR guidelines, the federal government will fund stem cell research done on ‘surplus’ embryos and aborted remains, as long as consent is given by the ‘donors’. Heavy in its use of euphemisms, the CIHR report does not recognize the embryo as a human being with an “inalienable right to life”. This bias shows up clearly in its guidelines, which avoid the most important questions pertaining to the status of an embryo. The merits of adult stem cell research are almost completely ignored in the report. This is ironic when one considers the many recent successes in adult stem cell research.
What’s ARPA’s position on the matter of stem cell research? Do we condemn it entirely? What about all the potential there is for the alleviation of paint & suffering? As mentioned earlier, the Minority Report issued by the Canadian Alliance has exposed some significant flaws in the draft bill. But even more important than exposing these flaws is our duty to encourage our government to consider Scriptural norms when passing legislation on an issue as important as this one. In any discussion on the origin of human life and when it starts, we do well to refer to Psalm 139. Here we gain a fuller, deeper appreciation for the gift of life that God gives:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139: 13,14; 15-16)
We cannot fault our government’s desire to alleviate suffering by funding medical research that shows great potential. Indeed, scientific advances in adult stem cell research may be an excellent example of how we are to fulfill our creation mandate to subdue the earth, using the resources that God has given us to work with (Gen1:26) Psalm 8:6 reminds us of our position as both king & steward: “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” However, we must let the government know the bounds of this mandate. Man must submit to the truth of God regarding the sanctity of life. Scripture is clear that life begins at conception. This fact must be the basis for any law regulating stem cell research. Human beings do not decide when life begins. God does. Regardless of how laudable the goals may be, unborn life is not a resource to be exploited
While we still have opportunity, let’s get behind our computers or pick up our pens and write a few words to some of the decision-makers in Ottawa. Remember, they are ASKING for our input. Our letters need not be long nor require lengthy amounts of time. Let’s do our part, exercise our democratic right & encourage our policy-makers to legislate a Christian standard on stem cell research.