Saturday, May 07, 2005

"I left my stem cells in San Francisco"

San Francisco yesterday won the bid to be the home of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)--the newly-formed stem-cell institute, "making the city poised to become the world capital of the emerging science [of stem-cell research]," according to this report from the San Francisco Chronicle. The CIRM, among other things, will oversee stem-cell research in the state (which will include research using embryonic stem cells) as well as oversee the spending of the whopping $3 billion for research grants. That large revenue is one of the reasons why many cities in the state have been vigorously competing to be the home for CIRM.

I do not object to most stem cell research, especially to adult stem-cell research, because these cells are generally taken from a person's umbilical cord, bone marrow, skeletal muscle, retina, epidermis, and from other various tissues and organs in the body. Also, research using adult stem cells has been proven to provide successful therapies in humans for many years.

My objection, as well as the Church's, is to the use of embryonic stem cells, because obtaining embryonic stem cells require the destruction of the embryo.

Writing for the Catholic Medical Association, the Rev. Dr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk--who after earning a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Yale University did post-doctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital and at Harvard Medical School and who later studied in Rome where he did advanced studies in theology and in bioethic-- explains very nicely and succinctly the objections to the use of embryonic stem cells.

He writes that the moral objection to the use of embryonic stem cells is "not a matter of religious belief, but a matter of biology. A human embryo is a human being, a being that is clearly and unmistakably human. It is not a zebra-type of being, a plant-type of being or some other kind of being. Each of us was once an embryo, and this affirmation does not depend on religion, belief systems, or imposing anything on anyone. It depends only on a grasp of basic biology. It is a matter of empirical observation."

And this recognition of someone's humanity immediately confers on that person certain protections. Pacholczyk continues: "Once you are constituted a human being (which always occurs at fertilization or at an event that mimics fertilization like cloning), you are a new member of the human race who must be protected unconditionally. The human embryo is a being that is human, and such beings are inviolable entities, because that’s what we all directly spring from at the root level."

So, the dispute really boils down to whether or not this embryo is a human being whose destruction for the benefit of another human being is therefore murder. Pacholczyk therefore says that "Embryos are no different in their essential humanity from a fetus in the womb, a 10 year old boy, or a 100 year old woman. At every stage of development, human beings (whether zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus, infant, adolescent, or adult) retain their identity as an enduring being that grows towards its subsequent stage(s); embryos are integral beings structured for maturation along their proper time line. Despite their unfamiliar appearance, embryos are what very young humans are supposed to look like." In the words of Tertullian (d. 240): "The one who will be a human is already one." Biologically, philosophically, and logically therefore, the argument supporting the personhood of a human embryo holds.

But even if there is doubt that a human embryo is a human person, the natural and human tendency is to err towards the side of extreme caution. An illustration helps to show this. If I were to find on the street a large paper bag, and I sense something moving inside it, my first impulse is not to kick it but to inquire what is inside that bag. I might take a peak just to see if what is inside is a live animal, or even a small live infant. Prudence and just plain common sense lead towards caution, rather than a hasty presumption that this "object" called embryo is not a human being and therefore is disposable.

Objections to the use of embryonic stem cells for research are also based on medical data. Fr. Pacholczyk writes that an embryonic stem cell from "a random embryo donor are likely to be rejected after transplantation….and are capable of forming tumors or promoting tumor formation."

So, why this "enthusiasm" for embryonic stem-cell research"? Well, Fr. Pacholczyk lists a few "advantages" to embryonic stem-cell use:

1) Flexible: appear to have the potential to make any cell
2) Immortal: one embryonic stem-cell line can potentially provide an endless supply of cells with defined characteristics
3) Availability: “leftover” embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics

However, it must be noted that there has been no successful therapy thus far using embryonic stem cell research. Whereas there have been many successful cures attributed to the use of adult stem cells. This enthusiasm for the use of stem cells from embryos partly stem from scientific speculation that this "might" provide a cure and healing. But again, there has been no proof of this.

And some say that since many of the embryos that will be used for research will be from those acquired from in vitro fertilizations, and therefore will be discarded anyway, wouldn't it be better to utilize these embryos for the good of others? If one believes that these embryos have full personhood, then this argument is a very utilitarian way of looking at human beings. It also directly violates the moral principle that human life cannot be taken for the benefit of another.

While some insist that this is for the good of many ailing people out there, Pacholczyk asserts that "The well-known moral principle that good ends do not justify immoral means applies directly here. Once you’re a being who is human, you are the bearer of human rights, and you are inviolable. We know that the human embryo is a human being because it possesses an internal code for self-actualization and is an organism with an independent and inherent teleology (goal-directedness) to develop into an adult, and is physiologically alive and genetically human. Our existence as human beings is a continuum that extends all the way back to our origins in that humble ball of cells we call an embryo. Each of us has our origins in such an embryo, and therefore human embryos should never be depersonalized or instrumentalized for research purposes by strip-mining them for their cells or tissues."

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