Stem Cells, Abortion and the Slippery Slope

Occasionally, news stories appear from different news agencies that seem only tangentially related, but may actually be more closely related than first appears. In that line, I recently came across two news stories that are of tremendous interest to people who are in the pro-life community. Yet, one received a great deal of press (with what may be the most important points downplayed) while the second received almost no press at all. But taken together, these stories may be an ominous warning of the reality of the slippery slope in the "culture of death."

The first story concerns the recent announcement that scientists from Harvard have discovered a way to fuse embryonic stem cells and adult skin cells to create a new line of stem cells that has the same qualities as embryonic stem cells. According to the story in USA Today entitled "Fusion process advances research on stem cells" by Dan Vergano, these stem cells could potentially avoid the ethical dilemma created by embryonic stem cell research.

Scientists at Harvard Medical School announced that they have created a new kind of hybrid stem cell by fusing skin cells with embryonic stem cells.

The advance opens an avenue to creating stem cells without destroying cloned, early-stage embryos or excess embryos from fertility clinics. Because embryonic stem cells are master cells that give rise to all kinds of tissue, scientists see them as a way to cure many diseases. Some social conservatives decry the destruction of human embryos to harvest the cells.

* * *

In a report to be published in Friday's Science magazine, the team shows how hybrid cells resemble embryonic cells in looks, growth and chemistry, forming into the tissue types found in a developing embryo. The researchers conclude that embryonic stem cells can reset adult cell genes through cell fusion.

"The method we have presented is not a replacement for embryonic stem cells," Eggan says. "The advantages these offer are purely scientific ones."

Specifically, creating such cells in large numbers, a much easier task without the added step of using hard-to-manipulate and difficult-to-acquire donor eggs, will allow experimentation on the chemical signals that cause the resetting of adult cells. Explaining this resetting, or reprogramming, is a goal of scientists who hope to use this research to create transplant tissues.

For those of us in the pro-life community, this appears to be good news. After all, no one wants to stand in the way of scientific progress (even if that progress appears, at present, to be nothing more than a "mere possibility" that treatments can ever be developed using the embryonic stem cell research), and if these fused stem cells can be used to replace or, at minimum, perform the same research function as embryonic stem cells, then that would appear to be a good thing.

But there are two catches. First, the process discovered by the Harvard scientists is in its very earliest stages, and there is certainly no showing as of yet that these fused cells can perform all of the same functions that an embryonic stem cell is hoped to be able to perform. As noted by the USA Today article:

Supporters of expanded embryonic stem cell research, such as Lawrence Goldstein of the American Society for Cell Biology, counter that the hybrid cells, for all their promise, are not established enough to justify derailing existing research.

The double set of genes that the hybrids possess means any attempt to transplant them into people will cause the immune system to reject the cells, Goldstein says. "This is just the start of a line of research, not the end. It's senseless to cut off other research for the sake of an idea at this stage."

Of course, this is an interesting argument for Lawrence Goldstein to make since the entire argument for the use of embryonic stem cells is based on the "promise" of embryonic stem cells to provide cures and treatments, which "promise" is itself not established. So, it is somewhat ironic that even though both treatments show "promise," the "promise" from embryonic stem cell research justifies continuing the research while the "promise" from the fused cells does not justify cutting off the research into the more controversial area.

But more important, Mr. Goldstein apparently believes (as do many people) that if humanity is benefited by the destruction of human embryos in the continued research into embryonic stem cells, then such research should proceed even if it arguably results in the death of a human being -- which, in the final analysis, is the only thing that the human embryo that is destroyed in the process of harvesting those stem cells can be. In my view, and the view of others, embryonic stem cell research which destroys human life cheapens the value of human life which can result in even nastier consequences for society.

The second catch with the fused cell procedure seems to contradict the claim in USA Today that the "advance opens an avenue to creating stem cells without destroying cloned, early-stage embryos or excess embryos from fertility clinics." As reported in the article "Stem cell advance muddles debate" by Ceci Connolly, Washington Post Staff Writer:

[Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.)] and others stressed, however, that for now the new Harvard procedure requires cell lines taken from a human embryo.

"It's not as if this research says there is no need for embryonic stem cells," said Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "It continues to show the enormous potential of stem cell research and highlights the value of embryonic stem cells as a source of research material."

In other words, as Kevin Eggan, the study leader, is reported as noting, the technique the researchers used to reprogram the skin cells "still carries the same moral burden" for people "who have fundamental objections to the destruction of embryos" because embryonic stem cells are needed for the procedure . . . ." So, here is the question which the news articles seem to confuse: is an embryo destroyed in this process or not? If so, then it appears that the debate is only being shifted from research which directly uses a human embryo that must be destroyed, to research which indirectly uses a human embryo which must be destroyed. In either case, it may be that a human embryo is destroyed which devalues human life.

The second article also concerns the use of embryonic stem cells in a manner which supposedly benefits people, but this article demonstrates that there is a real and substantial possibility that the treatment of human embryos as less than human by saying it is okay to harvest them for the betterment of mankind may be leading to a legitimate slippery slope. According to an article from Radio Free Europe entitled "Russia: The Orthodox Church And The Stem-Cell Debate" by Julie A. Corwin, embryonic stem cells are being used in Russia as "youth rejuvenators."

In recent months, a series of articles in both the Western and Russian press have documented a growing business peddling the miraculous benefits of fetal stem cells to roll back the signs of aging. The proprietor of one sleek clinic in Moscow openly admitted in a series of interviews with a variety of media outlets that what he is doing is skirting the edge of legality -- if not morality -- but he invoked the principle of "what is not forbidden is allowed."

From the standpoint of science, the practices of these health clinics and beauty salons are highly dangerous. Stem cells -- sometimes labeled as fetal but sometimes from animals such as pigs and sheep -- are being injected under clients' skin, into their stomachs, at the base of their spines, etc. Vladimir Smirnov, director of the Institute of Experimental Cardiology, told the British medical journal "The Lancet," No. 9466, that clients can feel a positive effect for a month or six weeks after the injection because introducing foreign material into the body causes "immuno-stimulation." But this foreign material being injected can grow into tumors and/or cause infections.

Obviously, there are numerous problems with this practice that extend beyond the moral. But while the article notes that some of the injected stem cells are animal stem cells, others aren't. Where do these clinic operators get these embryonic or fetal stem cells? Quite simply, they are from aborted babies. But that isn't the worst part. According to Ms. Corwin's article:

Non-Christians often challenge religious objections to the use of fetal stem cells by noting that the aborted fetuses would otherwise be thrown out. But evidence suggests that the fetal stem cells being used by clinics and salons are not "recycled" waste, since not just any fetal cells are suitable. Fetuses that are further developed are more desirable to those clinics. Smirnov, director of the Institute of Experimental Cardiology, believes there is a criminal trade in fetuses that are obtained from poor women in Russia and Ukraine who are persuaded to have late abortions. "The women are paid about $200 to have a cesarean at about 15 weeks and the fetus is then passed on to a clinic," he told "The Lancet." According to "Moskovskii komsomlets," ads seeking fetal stem cells have appeared on Russian websites.

Yes, it appears that these clinics are paying women to abort babies so they can harvest the baby/fetus for its stem cells. When a fetus is no longer identified as human, but is instead identified as a clump of cells available for human use and profit, then it follows that people will see them as such for all purposes. What should be considered abhorrent -- the destruction of a baby for profit -- is seen by these clinic operators as merely a way to make money which "skirts the edge of legality."

Okay, if it makes me a "fundamentalist wacko" to object that paying people to have abortions so someone can use their aborted babies for profit is unethical and immoral, then I guess I will have to accept that label because this is horrifying.


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