Patience, Not Radical Policy Change, on Stem-cell Research
On March 9, President Obama made good on a promise to lift the restrictions former President Bush placed on embryonic stem-cell research eight years ago. As he issued his executive order (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Removing-Barriers-to-Responsible-Scientific-Research-Involving-Human-Stem-Cells/) to use federal funds (reportedly, up to $10 billion for now) to explore ways embryonic stem cells may help lead to cures for spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and other diseases, Obama pushed the ethical line farther away from the assumption that embryos are living human beings. This is deeply disappointing…and apparently unnecessary.
Stem-cell research as a whole is not controversial. Scientific examination and manipulation of adult stem cells—cells that form after embryonic development that can evolve into particular body organs—can be done without harming anyone. The moral and hence political debate, however, is over embryonic stem-cell research. Embryonic stem cells are also undifferentiated and also evolve into various body organs, but the process necessary to make them scientifically useful requires—at least until recently—destroying them. For people who believe human life begins at conception, extinguishing embryonic stems cells means killing human beings.
Unfortunately, although the use of adult stem cells has helped scientific curative research develop, as well as led to cancer cures (for example in bone marrow transplants), they are apparently not as useful as embryonic stem cells because most of them are not pluripotent. Most adult cells can only evolve into particular organs, as opposed to most embryonic stem cells, which can, if manipulated properly, evolve into any organ. Most scientists in this field believe pluripotency is the gold standard for the promise of cures based on stem-cell research.
Fortunately, in the last two years scientists have discovered (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/01/AR2009030101741_pf.html) a way to transform adult stem cells into pluripotent cells closely resembling embryonic stem cells. If this scientific research is authentic and lives up to the potential many scientists believe it has, it holds out the prospect of dodging the moral quandary over embryonic stem-cell research. Still, there are scientists who are skeptical that transformed adult stem cells will be as useful as embryonic stem cells in research for cures.
Nonetheless, the adult stem-cell research is promising. Those of us who consider ourselves "pro-life" are divided over the morality of embryonic stem-cell research. I suspect that even those among us who support it do so with a twinge of moral uncertainty. Let's tell our members of Congress to divert more money for R&D to make safe and reliable pluripotent cells from adult stem cells. Supporting this policy over Obama's support for embryonic stem-cell research requires patience. This policy may come to therapies more slowly than embryonic stem-cell research, which means those of us who oppose it must live with the hard possibility that millions of people struck with serious injuries and diseases will have to live longer with and perhaps die from them. Perhaps this will goad us to be more urgent in our prayer and policy advocacy.