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September 22, 1999






Stem cell research poses spiritual quandary
___By Kathi Wolfe
___Religion News Service
___WASHINGTON (RNS)--Stem cell research, a new biotechnology that potentially could cure Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative illnesses, is posing a Pandora's box of ethical dilemmas for scientists, ethicists and theologians.
___That box was opened at a recent meeting in Washington on issues raised by the research. The meeting was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Institute for Civil Society.
___According to ethicists, the research, while providing much hope, presents a host of ethical and religious questions. Embryonic stem cells are "primordial," meaning they sciencelogosmpotentially could develop into any type of body tissue. They don't have a brain.
___But some ethicists see embryos as human beings. Is this so? Or is an embryo a "potential" human being? Is it ethical to create embryos for research purposes? Does the amelioration of suffering justify the research? What about doing research with an embryo that's "left over" from an in-vitro fertilization procedure?
___"As a physician and a (Roman) Catholic, I realize there are serious ethical, legal, religious and other considerations related to human stem cell research," said Sharon Kielly, a Pittsburgh doctor and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation volunteer. "These two value systems, however, lead me to believe ... that to ignore the potential ... of this research to relieve misery ... would be morally unacceptable."
___ However, Chris Currie, 37, who has had diabetes since age 11, said he views stem cell research quite differently.
___"I'd love for there to be a cure for diabetes," he said, but explained he opposes embryonic stem cell research because he believes embryos to be human beings from the earliest stages of conception.
___His opposition "isn't based on religious feelings," he said. "Please don't caricature me by lumping me in with the Religious Right. I oppose stem cell research on humanistic grounds. I don't want to be cured if curing me would mean killing another human being. Even if that would save my life."
___These opposing views reflect the passion surrounding this controversy. Stem cell research is developing in the midst of a tidal wave of new genetic research and biotechnology. The debate plays off sensitive divisions now polarizing our culture: science vs. religion and respecting human life vs. curing horrible diseases.
___The Washington forum was held in an effort to forge some "common ground" on this contentious issue, said Institute for Civil Society senior fellow Gail Pressberg.
___"People (from different sectors) are talking about technologies that involve profits, life, death, conception. But they're not coming together about this. The religious, scientific, patient and corporate communities need to come together about stem cell research."
___But she says she isn't naive about the result. "We don't expect 100 percent consensus. But we hope to get to a point where we satisfy 80 to 90 percent of the religious and ethical traditions in this country."
___Some religious groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention, find embryonic stem cell research "abhorrent," she noted.
___Since 1995, there has been a ban on using federal money to fund human embryo research. A presidential advisory commission, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, is expected soon to formally recommend that federally funded scientists be permitted to conduct stem cell research on embryos derived from women who have undergone in-vitro fertilization procedures.
___Richard Doerflinger, associate director for policy development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he finds the recommendation morally reprehensible.
___Human embryos are human beings, he said, adding that embryos, whose stem cells have been isolated, have been murdered. In April, Doerflinger testified before the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, saying, "From the time of the Nuremberg Code, ethical norms on human experimentation have demanded that we never inflict death ... on any unconsenting individual ... simply for the sake of benefit to others."
___Ben Mitchell, consultant on biomedical and life issues for the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, believes stem cell research "has great promise for treatment of Parkinson's and other diseases. But to obtain some stem cells, human embryos have to be destroyed. This raises a question: Are we willing to use these means to accomplish this end?"
___Mitchell said he views embryos as "vulnerable individuals" and feels destroying them violates "the sanctity of life."
___To help alleviate suffering, Mitchell wants more funding to be earmarked for adult stem cell research that uses stem cells from parts of the body other than embryos. Some scientists would like to see more funding of "adult" stem cell research. Other scientists say such research doesn't show the same promise as embryonic research.
___Mitchell warns that if researchers are not careful, embryonic stem cell research could propel the culture on to a "brave new world" where fellow human beings are treated as "chattel."
___Some scientists, ethicists, nurses and physicians also argue against the research. Former U.S. Surgeon General Everett Koop and former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Frank Young signed a statement this summer opposing the research.
___Despite this passionate opposition, many scientists, patients, ethicists and religious leaders strongly back the research. Last May, the Patients' Coalition for Urgent Research, a Washington-based advocacy group, conducted an opinion poll that found three of four Americans favor using federal funds for stem cell research on donated embryos.
___Ted Peters, an ordained Lutheran minister and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif., said an embryo "should be treated with reverence, with respect. But an embryo isn't a human being. It's a potential human being, but it won't become a human being unless it's implanted in a womb and brought to term.
___"That's morally relevant," he added. "Already destroyed embryos could be used to relieve suffering--for a morally good purpose."
___Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., said he hasn't seen scientists so excited in decades about the clinical application of research as they are about this. "We all know someone who has a terrible disease that this research could help," he said.
___There's agreement among scientists and ethicists, Murray said, that embryos shouldn't be created for the purpose of being used in stem cell research. The embryos currently used for stem cell research, he noted, already have been destroyed.
___Murray compares people who donate these embryos --such as couples who have had in-vitro fertilization and decided not to have children --to "people who have donated the organs of their relatives who have died."
___

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