The Common Good
December 2007

No Time for Retreat

by Celeste Kennel-Shank | December 2007

The difficulty - and necessity - of finding a middle ground on stem cells.

On the stage of a microscope’s slide, human embryonic stem cells can have a holy glow about them. Perhaps it is just the way the light strikes a colony of cells, which resembles a raspberry drained of its color. Many people bestow holiness upon embryonic stem cells. Spending a week shadowing researchers at one of Northwestern University’s medical laboratories, I could understand why some individuals see stem cells as a medical breakthrough on par with penicillin, and others view them as a sacred form of life.

Those perspectives on the significance of embryos are at the heart of the debate. Any legislation on stem cell research will have its faithful dissenters, and people of faith and conscience should continue to listen to one another’s views. Yet we must also ask what best serves the common good. Our nation needs a new policy on stem cells, one which—like the bill passed by a bipartisan Congress, but vetoed by President Bush, this summer—would allow fertility-clinic clients, with full consent and without pay, to donate unused embryos to research.

Unless key decision makers change their minds on this issue, it will take several more years before the federal government reaches a compromise about the way forward. Jonathan Moreno, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has little hope of Congress developing a veto-proof majority on stem cell legislation, but he says that states will likely take further action. California, Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey have earmarked millions for research on embryonic stem cell lines, while several other states support the research with undesignated funding. Private companies offer another source of money.

However, debates over federal dollars are critical because the National Institutes of Health are the main source of medical research funding. The NIH provided more than $600 million in fiscal year 2007 for stem cell research—nearly 80 percent of total funding, according to a report by Moreno and two of his colleagues. This has allowed for the development of treatments from adult stem cell sources and exploration of stem cell lines that were created from embryos before Aug. 9, 2001—the only ones federal funding can be used to study.

YET, MANY SCIENTISTS complain that the permitted stem cell lines are aging and are not as effective as newer lines. This stalls the research and creates a fragmented system of funding and regulation. Under this patchwork of rules, some labs are kept like kosher kitchens, with all equipment strictly separated depending on who funded it—down to each microscope and glass mounting slide. Expanding federal funding to research on a limited number of new stem cell lines would advance the possibility of further therapies, while maintaining government regulation and keeping scientists accountable to the public.

Proponents of the current policy argue that scientists should use only adult stem cell sources, such as bone marrow, capitalizing on the characteristics those cells share with all stem cells: the ability to divide almost indefinitely, renew themselves, and become different cell types. While these therapies are valuable, adult stem cells are not an alternative to embryonic research.

Only embryonic stem cells can become nearly any type of cell in the body. Using them in some research is believed by many scientists to be the only way to unlock the full potential of medical treatments derived from the cells. And there are many people living with illnesses who deserve new chances at healing. When I first heard a Northwestern researcher describe the possibility of repairing severed spinal cords, I pictured a beloved friend rising from her wheelchair.

The compromise of allowing some embryos from fertility clinics to be used will not satisfy all in the debate. Yet, expanded funding—and accompanying expanded regulation—would ensure that there is a more logical set of checks and balances as researchers pursue new treatments. Just as the current policy prohibits using federal dollars to experiment with stem cell lines created after 2001, a new policy could exclude stem cell lines from cloned embryos or from those created expressly for research.

It is possible that in the next few years scientists will find a new source of stem cells with the same capabilities as those from embryos, enabling research that does not destroy embryos. It is also true that embryonic stem cells may never yield the successful treatments for humans that have been demonstrated in research animals. Yet these questions will remain unanswered unless both embryonic and non-embryonic research continues.

There is no one right answer in the stem cell debate, only an ever-evolving series of compromises. Legislation similar to what Congress has already approved would open a way forward.

Celeste Kennel-Shank studied Christian perspectives on biology while earning a degree in environmental studies at Goshen College in Indiana. She reported on stem cell research while a graduate journalism student at Northwestern University.

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