Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Spare the Stem Cell, Spoil the Child?

With President Obama's decision to offer federal funding to research an extended number of stem cell lines including embryonic stem cells, the embryonic stem cell research debate has reignited. Talk show hosts, politicians, clergy, and average people all seem to have an opinion on the subject. For some, it's a matter of ethics. For others, it's a matter of science. For still others, it's a matter of practicality.

The scary thing is that they're all right to a point.

From a religious standpoint, there can be no good that comes from the use of embryonic stem cells. Yes, I know there are people of faith who think their use will curtail human suffering and do so with an unformed soul. Yet, I can't help but think that using that baby (and we should be honest that it is a baby we're dealing with here) for the purpose of harvesting stem cells is a poke in God's eye. Furthermore, life tends to be a pretty important concept in many Christian circles. To take one life in the hopes of extending another is, at its heart, playing God. A scientist is making the decision of who lives and who dies, not God. That basis alone should give people of faith a reason to pause.

The scientific perspective may not have the passion of the religious argument, but it's no less important to consider. So far, the bulk of the advances made in stem cell research have been made from using adult stem cells, while embryonic stem cells have yielded disappointing results. Does this mean embryonic stem cells can't be used for good someday? Of course not. The fact is that we may not completely understand the nature of embryonic stem cells yet, which could explain why they haven't been used to their utmost. If scientists can figure out a way to use embryonic stem cells without harvesting them, and from what I've read they have, we may be able to see the fruition of the hope that they've put into embryonic stem cells. In the meantime, we should continue to use the stem cells that have been proven to work and find their limits before we devote too much hope into something that may or may not work.

Then, there's the practical aspect. Advocates of embryonic stem cell research say that the stem cells being used are taken from fertilized eggs that are going to be destroyed, so it's not like they'd be going to waste. The problem with this approach is that it attempts to rationalize a practice that hasn't had a good track record in application. If embryonic stem cells start producing the cures that advocates say they can, that's one thing, but to ignore their failures to date is folly at best. There is simply no practical argument to be made to harvest stem cells from a source only to have those stem cells do nothing.

Embryonic stem cell research is steeped in emotion, science, reason, and faith. Yet, for all of the promise we've heard it can provide, I'm not sure it can be justified until more can be done to show that embryonic stem cells are worth the hype. To some, my position is anti-science, but it's not. If you want to spend money on embryonic stem cells, be my guest, but I will warn you that you may not be pleased with the outcome if the current science is any indication of future success. Until it can be shown that embryonic stem cells are as useful as advocates claim, let's stick with what we know works.

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