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October 23, 2010

Stem cell research must move forward

Robert Edwards of Britain received the Nobel Prize in medicine earlier this month for research that led to the birth of the first "test-tube baby" in 1978. Hugely controversial 32 years ago, Edwards' work is now lauded as a medical breakthrough that has brought immeasurable joy to the families of the 4 million babies born through in vitro fertilization.

In another 32 years, history may take a similar view of today's controversy over stem cells.

Stem cell research has the potential to revolutionize the field of medicine. Blindness could be reversed. Severe burns could be healed. Children with muscular dystrophy, Type 1 diabetes and even spinal injuries could be cured. Doctors already use blood stem cells, from bone marrow, to treat people with blood diseases such as leukemia, and other types of stem cells hold even greater promise.

Stem cells are the foundation cells for every tissue, organ and cell in the body. Since they can be "programmed" to develop into specialized tissues and organs, stem cells could one day be used in new treatments and maybe even cures for degenerative and autoimmune diseases like Parkinson's, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

The future of medicine may hinge on this work -- yet it has been stymied by presidential and court orders prohibiting federal funding for research using stem cells from human embryos.

First, some background: Adult stem cells, which exist in fetal and adult tissues, can only form a limited number of cell types, but embryonic stem cells can form all cell types. Researchers have been studying mouse embryonic stem cells for years, and human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998. In 2001, President Bush issued an order that only existing embryonic stem cell lines could be used in research funded by federal grant money. No new embryonic stem cells could be studied -- not even those from leftover embryos donated to science by couples using in vitro fertilization.

President Obama removed the limitations last year, but research was shut down in August after a U.S. District Court issued an injunction banning federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. A Court of Appeals stay issued last month allows research to continue while the original case is debated … and the legal battle continues.

Critics oppose human embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that it violates the sanctity of life because embryos are destroyed when the cells are harvested.

I understand that they are standing on principle. However, don't we also have a moral imperative to do everything we can to save lives and alleviate suffering?

The argument that no tax dollars should be used to fund research on donated embryos is ridiculous. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the federal government spends 20 percent of the budget ($715 billion this year) on defense and security, far more than it spends on medical research of any kind. So it's OK that our money is being used to kill civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan because the end justifies the means -- but it's not OK to destroy an embryo in order to develop a treatment that could heal a child with a spinal injury?

This makes no sense.

People have a right to their beliefs. Those who believe an embryo is more valuable than a real, live, breathing child suffering from muscular dystrophy are entitled to their opinion. But fear of upsetting the pro-life voting bloc should not dictate National Institutes of Health policy.

People who don't want to be a party to research they deem unethical can do what thousands of anti-war activists have done: refuse to pay their taxes.

In the 32 years since test-tube baby Louise Brown entered the world, we've been forced to grapple with many challenging ethical questions related to human reproduction. For example: Should egg donors be paid? Should there be an age limit for women using in vitro fertilization? Who is a child's legal mother: the egg donor, the surrogate or the mother who actually raised the child? Should a child be brought into the world for the primary purpose of saving a sibling from a life-threatening disease?

Stem cell science certainly adds more ethical issues to the mix. But stifling research that could save lives because we're scared of the sticky questions serves no purpose.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at

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