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Stem Cell Research: Questions and Answers

By Christina M. H. Powell

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As election time draws near, stem cell research remains a hotly debated issue across our nation. Although the science is complex and the terminology evolving, the research evokes strong passions in people from all walks of life, encouraging us to hope for cures for dread diseases while requiring us to define who we are as human beings. When faced with such an important and controversial issue as stem cell research, we must step away from unsubstantiated hype and unfounded fear and carefully ask the right questions — questions that will be relevant not only for the techniques used today but also for the technology of tomorrow.

As a first step, let us examine the issue of stem cell research through the following series of question and answers designed to clarify current scientific findings and ethical concerns:

Q: What types of diseases or injuries might be cured by stem cells?

A: Scientists hope that the power of stem cells can be harnessed to cure diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and juvenile diabetes, and repair injuries such as trauma to the spinal cord. Stem cell research has exciting possibilities, but we have a long way to go in the journey from basic research to bedside cures. In addition, stem cell research may not be the only way to cure the diseases often listed as targets for future stem cell therapies. Ultimately, stem cells may not be a part of the treatment for those diseases, although stem cells may play a part in helping us understand those diseases.

Q: How does stem cell research require us to define who we are as human beings?

A: Some stem cell research involves the destruction of a human embryo. To determine whether or not we view such research as ethical, we need to define what constitutes human life.

Q: Is a human embryo a human life?

A: A human embryo is a human life. Humans begin their lives as single cells formed at the moment of conception. Embryonic stem cell research destroys embryos at the blastocyst stage of development.

Normally a new human life spends the time from the single cell stage to the blastocyst stage traveling down a fallopian tube, safely tucked away in the mother’s body. In vitro fertilization technology now makes it possible for the earliest stages of human life to be spent in the laboratory outside the mother’s body. Unfortunately, in the laboratory setting, the human embryo is depersonalized and available for experimentation.

The developing embryo is more than just a collection of cells — the embryo is a complete human organism. When you look at a blastocyst under the microscope, you do not see a person with a face, two arms, and two legs. We must remember, however, that a human being after only 5 days of development does not yet have these features. The shape of a human organism 5 days after beginning life is a hollow sphere. Only time and the provision of the proper nutrients and growth environment separate the embryo from the rest of humanity.

Q: What is the ethical debate over embryonic stem cell research?

A: The ethical debate over embryonic stem cell research is about whether or not we as a society feel it is okay to destroy a new developing life, in the form of a blastocyst, in order to pursue the possibility of future ways to improve the health of other human lives.

Q: What is the Assemblies of God position on conducting research on human embryos?

A:The Assemblies of God and many other religious bodies object to conducting research on human embryos because these communities of faith recognize the need to protect human life at its most vulnerable stage. Potential medical benefits do not justify destroying human life at any stage of development.

Q: There are prominent pro-life public figures who support embryonic stem cell research. Why would pro-life advocates support this research?

A: The hope of curing dread diseases has a way of overshadowing the sanctity of human life in early development. It can be hard for people to understand the difference between a small mass of cells that might be found in a laboratory tissue culture dish and a blastocyst. A blastocyst is more than just a small mass of cells in a tissue culture dish because a blastocyst has the capacity to develop into a human baby.

In a democracy such as our own, it is important that people clearly understand what they are voting for. A person may decide that destroying a new human life in its earliest stages is a price he is willing to pay for scientific progress. We need to be greatly concerned, however, that many people, including those who consider themselves pro-life, may cast their vote on this issue based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes a human life.

Q: What is somatic cell nuclear transfer?

A: Somatic cell nuclear transfer is a cloning technique. It is a way to create embryonic stem cells with the same genetic blueprint as a patient so the cells will not be rejected by the patient’s immune system. The end result of this procedure is a single cell that can grow into an embryo in the same way as an egg fertilized by a sperm normally grows into an embryo. Stem cells can be harvested from cloned embryos in the same way that they are harvested from the extra embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics.

Q: What is the Assemblies of God position on the production of stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer?

A:The ethical concern raised by production of stem cells through somatic cell nuclear transfer is the same concern raised by the use of embryos from in vitrofertilization experiments — namely the destruction of a human life in an early stage. The Assemblies of God opposes the creation and destruction of human life for medical research.

Q: Could there ever be a way to obtain embryonic stem cells without destroying human life?

A: Some bioethicists hope technology will rescue us from the point of moral quandary to which it has brought us. The goal is to reprogram a cell to generate stem cells without creating an embryo at any point in the process. A technique called Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR) may achieve that goal. As long as a human embryo is neither created nor destroyed in the production of stem cells, such an approach, if technically feasible, would be ethically acceptable.

Q: What would be the Assemblies of God position on an approach to generating stem cells that does not involve the creation of an embryo at any point in the process?

A: If the goal of generating stem cells without creating an embryo at any point in the process were attained, the Assemblies of God could support that approach in much the same way as the Assemblies of God supports research on stem cells taken from tissues in an adult patient.

Q: A new development in embryonic stem cell research suggests that it might be possible to harvest embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo. How does this finding factor into the ethical debate?

A: While the idea of harvesting stem cells without destroying the embryo is admirable, ethical problems remain with this approach. We do not yet know the long-term risk of removing a cell from a developing embryo at such an early stage. Harvesting stem cells from the embryo puts the individual who develops from the embryo at risk without benefiting that person in any way. The Assemblies of God does not support any procedure that puts a developing embryo at an unnecessary risk for the purpose of medical research that has no potential benefit for the individual who develops from that embryo.

Q: Since embryonic stem cell research is a complex issue with technology and terminology that are constantly changing, what is the best way for us to respond through our democratic system of government?

A: Since the science is constantly evolving, it is important that the people of each state, through their legislatures, retain the freedom to respond to ethical concerns raised by the latest scientific discoveries. In a democratic society it is important that the people have an ongoing voice on issues that are important to them. Codifying regulations concerning stem cell research into a state constitution deprives voters and their elected representatives in the legislature the opportunity to strike the right balance between scientific progress and respect for life. In the face of changing technology, the last thing we need to do is take power away from the people and stifle much-needed dialog.

Conclusion

While new technologies and the latest scientific discoveries can bring excitement and renewed hope for patients and their families, for the Christian, hope lies not in a new laboratory technique, but in a relationship with a Person (Acts 2:25–28). The Assemblies of God values human life, even human life smaller than the size of a grain of sand, because the gospel emphasizes the sacredness of human life. We believe God loved human beings so much that He sent His Son to die so that we might be saved (Romans 5:8). Our human life has value because we have been made in the likeness of God (Genesis 5:1), and we have been made for eternity (Matthew 25:46). His plans and purpose for our lives began while we were still in early stages of development (Psalm 139:11–16). As we seek to make wise decisions regarding the new technologies before us, we can trust that He desires to give us the wisdom we need (James 1:5). May we use that wisdom to embrace the promise but avoid the peril of stem cell research.

Christina M.H. Powell

Christina M.H. Powell, Ph.D., an ordained minister, author, medical writer, and research scientist trained at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University. She speaks in churches and conferences nationwide and addresses faith and science issues at http://www.questionyourdoubts.com.

 

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