In April of 2009, six weeks after President Obama’s executive order lifting the Bush era policy that restricted federal funding to 21 already-extant lines, the NIH published a set of criteria for ethical (and therefore fundable) stem cell research:
"The agency will not fund research on cell lines derived from embryos created via in vitro fertilization for research rather than reproductive purposes, nor those created using somatic cell nuclear transfer or parthenogenesis," the report read.
In other words, researchers can’t deliberately create human embryonic stem cells to study. They can only use cells that were created for IVF (in-vitro fertilization) or other reproductive treatments, and that would otherwise be frozen indefinitely or thrown away. The ruling disturbed me. Were scientists deliberately creating embryos for stem cell research? If so, I could certainly foresee troubling ethical repercussions. Maybe this was what all the fuss was about.
But my concern was unfounded. Much of the guideline, it appeared, was pre-emptive. According to Raynard Kington, then acting director of the NIH, "We do not know of any human embryonic stem cell lines that were created from somatic nuclear transfer, or that were created just for stem cell purposes."
In the great stem cell debate, arguments generally fall along one of two lines. Proponents argue that the potential to cure painful and debilitating diseases that fully-formed, full-status people are suffering from RIGHT NOW supersedes whatever ethical issues one may have with experimenting on human embryonic CELLS. Opponents tend to express concerns that embryos, as potential people, should share the same rights as fully formed people, and therefore should not be deliberately harmed in any way.
But there’s another discussion that, I think, is woefully absent, and it is this: If there is an objection to harming embryonic cells, why are we not discussing the ethics and morality of creating them to harm in the first place?
A colleague and I recently discussed the debate and the recent judge’s decision that has held federally funded research in recent limbo. The discussion went something like this:
Him: I don’t understand the problem with stem cell research
Me: Well, some people think that human life begins when sperm meets egg and therefore harming embryos is harming humans.
Him: But they would be thrown away anyway. How is throwing something away and burning it as medical waste better than using it for research?
Me: People don’t seem to make that connection. The only answer I have ever heard is, “well maybe they can all be frozen until some day they will become loved babies.” But even the person who stated this viewpoint recognized that it was unreasonable.
Him: Then why aren’t people out in the streets demonstrating against, or at least debating IVF, the primary source of these embryos.
Me: Because having babies is viewed as natural, a basic biological right, and people feel sorry for people who can’t have babies.
Him: But it’s all related. And there are tons of children who need adoption.
Me: I know.
Since today’s announcement that Robert G. Edwards, the man who pioneered IVF, will win this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine, it seems that some people, and by "some people" I mean largely the Catholic Church, are at least talking about it again. The New York Times actually has a nice piece with some history of ethical concerns with IVF, which now seem, according to the article, to have generally died down. Still, I find it interesting that while general uproar about IVF has dissipated, the stem cell debate rages on, with scant attention to the source of unused cells in the first place.