Sunday, June 6, 2004

For: Stem research is legal, useful

By Jeffrey Kahn
Guest columnist

Embryonic stem cell research understandably evokes strong and diverse opinions, and so it is important that diverse opinions have a place in our societal debates. But it is also important that the information and arguments in these discussions are clear and accurate, especially when there is so much disagreement over them.

The fundamental issue in embryonic stem cell research is the morality of doing research on human embryos. To address it we must ask and answer the question of the moral status of human embryos. There is a wide range of articulated views on this issue, from arguments that such early stage embryos are mere tissue with no greater moral status than the cells we can scrape out of the insides of our cheeks, to arguments that early stage embryos ought to enjoy the same moral status of any of us living, breathing people.

Stem cell research could some day lead to cures for Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's and other diseases. Many scientists say new cell lines must be developed for research. Opponents say destroying harvested embryos to obtain stem cells involves destroying innocent life.

Do you think federal funds should be used to help advance this science? How do you balance social concerns versus personal benefits?

Please send your responses in 100 words or fewer to Stem Cell, Letters to the Editor, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202; e-mail letters@enquirer.com or fax 513-768-8610. Include your neighborhood and a daytime telephone number.

We'll publish a collection of responses on next Sunday's Opinions page.

The vast majority of Americans, supported by the official statements of numerous religious groups and ethics scholars, seem to think that the answer lies somewhere in between these two polar positions. The view is something like the following: embryos are collections of living human cells but are not persons. The potential they represent puts them into a different category than mere tissue, but the very early stage in development does matter in terms of their moral status. Human embryos therefore merit respect in how they are used, but not the same level of respect we accord persons. So where does this leave us?

If human embryos were human subjects, then it would be immoral to do embryonic stem cell research that destroyed embryos. But if embryos are not human subjects, then so long as we show careful respect in their use, it may well be immoral not to perform promising embryonic stem cell research.

In the United Kingdom, where a publicly funded embryonic stem cell bank has just been launched, embryos left over from in vitro fertilization are required to be discarded if they are not used within five years. Here in the United States, like in England, embryos that would otherwise be discarded seem an acceptable and responsible source for embryonic stem cell research.

The sometimes overlooked fact is that embryo research is and has long been legal under the laws of our country. Federal funds may not be used for most embryo research, owing to policy dating to the first Reagan administration and reiterated in President George W. Bush's August 2001 announcement restricting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

But any and all embryo research is permitted and fully legal so long as it is supported by non-public funding.

To the extent that the law represents society's sense of at least our basic moral rules, as I believe it does, the fact that embryo research is legal is meaningful.

This context is crucial to understanding the facts in the debate about embryonic stem cell research, and will in the process better inform the diverse opinions, insights and perspectives that make up healthy discussion. Only then can we proceed in ways that shed more light and less heat on controversial topics like embryonic stem cell research.


Jeffrey P. Kahn is director of the Center for Bioethics and holder of the Maas Family Chair in Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. In 2000 he was part of a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota who used in vitro fertilization and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to create a sibling who could serve as a stem cell donor to his sister, who suffered from, a rare blood disease.

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