Getting It Right on Stem Cells

Stem cells ***scroll for updates*** LifeSite posted yesterday the second installment of its two-part interview with Dr. Peter Hollands, the Chief Science Officer of the UK Cord Blood Bank. (Part one is here.) As pro-lifers have been saying for years, the future of stem cell technology isn’t in embryonic stem cells, but adult stem cells — a major sub-category of which are umbilical cord stem cells. (These are obtained from a baby’s umbilical cord following delivery.) Hollands states:

As a scientist, and even as a lay person, it is simple to see that cord blood as a source of stem cells for therapy and research is the easiest route to take. We have a never ending supply of cord blood and if we can start to collect and store this valuable resource instead of discarding it then we will start to make real progress in stem cell therapy and research… To claim that there are enough “spare” embryos in IVF clinics is nonsense. These embryos could not support the demand for stem cell transplants.

Hollands goes on to plainly state a fact that cannot be said often enough:

It is important to note that embryonic stem cells have never been used to treat anyone and that there are no plans to do so. In the UK for example we have invested millions in a national stem cell bank which contains approximately 6 different embryonic stem cell lines none of which are suitable for transplant [emphasis added].

Also worth reading on the subject of stem cells is the National Catholic Bioethics Center’s Statement on Proposed Method for Extracting Embryonic Stem Cells by Embryo Biopsy. It concisely explains why the stem cell “breakthrough” earlier this week (hailed by a Times of London editor as one that is “set to overturn ethical objections to potentially live-saving research,”) doesn’t really overturn anything. Several significant moral problems surround embryo biopsy, not the least of which is that this method of extracting cells depends on the creation of embryos through in-vitro fertilization:

It is a serious violation of human dignity to engender human life apart from the intimacy of the marital union. The only fitting home for a human embryo is in the warmth and shelter of its mother’s womb, not in the open lights of the laboratory being violated in Petri dishes.

The NCBC states in no uncertain terms:

This procedure is a clear violation of standard research protocols for the protection of human subjects and would be rejected by any properly constituted institutional review board. In addition to these clear moral difficulties the eventual outcomes of this manipulation on the embryo are not sufficiently known, hence the publication of this experimental protocol fails to provide an ethical avenue to pluripotent stem cell research in the future.

And finally, Dean Barnett has a must-read post at Hugh Hewitt titled “The Stem Cell Hustle.” (As far as I can tell, the term “stem cell hustle” was coined by Denny at Vital Signs Blog in May 2005; if anyone knows otherwise, I’m open to correction. Regardless, I hope the phrase becomes as commonplace as the unscientific terms “fertilized egg” and “pre-embryo” are today.) Barnett writes:

Virtually everyone who enters the field of medical research does so with the intention and the belief that they will accomplish great things. These people work tirelessly chasing lofty goals; they’re in it to save lives. They’re great people. My sole point is that in medical research, there’s nothing even close to a sure thing. IT HAS BEEN THE EMBRYONIC STEM CELL research community’s great good fortune to have been turned into a political football. Were it not for the confluence of interests between stem cell researchers and a major political party, stem cell research would receive about as much mainstream media attention as gene therapy. Which is to say, none. Pushed along by political interests who relish the chance to devalue the fetus, stem cell therapy has come to represent a panacea for the hopeless and the ignorant who understandably choose false hope over no hope. But, you have to wonder, what level of awareness do Michael J. Fox and Ronald Reagan Jr. have about the cause they so relentlessly tout? Let’s take Parkinson ’s disease, a terrible affliction. The Parkinson Foundation doled out three “mega-project” grants this year. None were for stem cell research or anything related to stem cell research. If stem cell research were the be-all and end-all that its public proponents claim it to be, why would that be the case? Regarding the value of stem cell research, the Parkinson Foundation has voted with its wallet.

Read the whole thing.

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***UPDATE: 8/28, 11:36 AM: In the comments section, Pansy Moss has just linked to an excellent article by Princeton professor Robert George titled “The Real Good News on Stem Cells” that was posted this morning on National Review Online. As an aside: Pansy’s link brought to mind a description of George I once came across in Crisis magazine. In a book review of George’s The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, Daniel Moloney writes:

A few of the essays show secularist professors hopping in the ring with George, only to find that the diminutive professor of political philosophy does a fair impression of Hulk Hogan—he doesn’t just win; he throws the opponent out of the ring and begins to chase after him with a chair, so relentless is he in argument.

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