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Need moral, legal, scientific perspectives on stem cell research

February 9, 2011

Featured in the Des Moines Register
By Jennifer Bard, visiting professor of law

The current debate in Iowa and many other states over whether embryonic stem cell research should be made illegal is not only appropriate but important. But it needs to take place within the context of facts.

Unlike every other cell in the human body that has a specific purpose and of which there is often a limited supply, stem cells have the potential to generate any organ or tissue. Until recently, little was known about stem cells because they were rarely seen. This is because the capacity for unlimited generation ends when we are born. After that, cells become specialized. While adults have some modified forms of stem cells, which oversee the production of new cells in blood or bone marrow, once a spinal cord is severed or brain tissue atrophies from dementia, it does not grow back.

The hope of those undertaking embryonic stem cell research is that someday it will be possible to transplant stem cells into the already developed human body so that it can repair itself. The effect would be to accomplish things that are now impossible, such as undo the paralysis of those suffering from spinal cord injuries or to cure diseases like cancer, diabetes or Parkinson's. Here's the catch: There is no way, nor should there be any need, to sugarcoat the reality that obtaining embryonic stem cells involves the deliberate stopping, after five to eight days, of the process in which a fertilized human egg develops into a fully formed infant. The embryos used for stem cell research are donated by parents who have extra embryos after having undergone in vitro fertilization (IVF) and are then destroyed in the process of developing embryonic stem cells that can be studied and implanted into injured parts of the body.

Why do parents donate these embryos? Because, as technology now stands, it is impossible to undergo IVF without facing the decision of what to do with the embryos that are not implanted yet remain viable. Most such embryos are destroyed by thawing. Many remain in frozen storage forever. A few may be donated for use by other couples. And some are donated for research. All of these options are legal in Iowa, and the choice is completely the parents'.

For those who believe life begins at conception and that any effort to stop the process of fetal development is wrong, both IVF, which results in leftover embryos, and embryonic stem cell research are absolutely wrong and should be illegal.

For non-absolutists, each form of embryo destruction requires a different balancing of benefit versus cost, and we're all entitled to our own opinions. Even those who accept the necessity for embryo destruction to provide infertile couples with their own biological children can have a special moral concern about research involving a human embryo. It is reasonable to want to balance the need for research against the act of destroying an embryo.

Most Americans so far see embryonic stem cells' capacity to substantially reduce sickness and disability worth research using embryos that would have otherwise been discarded. Only two states have laws that prohibit it. Banning stem cell research could impose substantial restraints on access to IVF and on our fundamental liberties to create families and control reproduction. While some claim that embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary because of advances in adult stem cell research, that unfortunately, is not true. But the concerns of those who oppose the use of embryos for research are valid and should be respected by continuing to acknowledge the sensitivity of the undertaking and by continuing to fund research with adult stem cells to seek the possibility of obtaining the same results without embryo destruction.