Embryonic stem cell research: Setting the record straight

With the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge going around, many people started talking about how they can’t support ALS because embryonic stem cell research kills babies. Other people said that it doesn’t matter because the embryos used for research coming from the IVF process have no hope of living anyway. And others? They said embryos are hardly people, so have at it.

There are all sorts of “facts” being thrown around, so let’s set the record straight with some scientific facts.

At the moment of conception, a new, unique DNA is present in that single cell. This fertilized egg, scientifically called a zygote, is the beginning of the continuum of human life. All that needs to happen from this point on is for the zygote to have nourishment to grow. Eventually it will become an embryo, then a fetus, and eventually after birth an infant and adult. Check out fetal development facts here.

But some would say it’s not a person. A zygote certainly doesn’t look very much like a person. But being born doesn’t magically make us human beings. Developing toenails doesn’t magically make us human beings. It makes sense to say that the moment of our beginning – fertilization – is the beginning of our existence.

Okay, embryos might be human. But since stem cells are all taken from the IVF process, they have no hope of developing into people anyway. Right? So we should make use of them!

The fact is that stem cells can be taken taken from more than embryos in the IVF process. We’ve gotten them from adults. They also have been found in amniotic fluid, and the umbilical cord. Many people throw around the idea that embryonic stem cells come from purposefully aborted embryos, but there’s a lot of research to be done on this topic. In 2009, the National Institute of Health released Guidelines on Human Stem Cell Research which allows funding for stem cell research on embryos from IVF. It also allows embryos to be donated in compliance with certain regulations.

I found that it’s not intellectually honest to say that all this research is happening on aborted babies. In fact, much of it is on embryos from IVF procedures. Why? Because the cells needed for research are best harvested at the blastocyst stage of development: about 5-6 days after fertilization when the embryo has developed into about 100 cells with an inner cell mass of 10-20 undifferentiated cells.

So enough of the scientific jargon. Why the focus on embryonic stem cells?

Embryonic stem cells are what we call pluripotent which means they can be programmed to become any cell except egg or sperm. Adult stem cells are naturally multipotent which means they can be programmed to become a different cell of a similar type. For example, an adult stem cell from bone marrow could be programmed into a blood cell.

Initially most people, including scientists saw more value in embryonic stem cell research over adult. Why? Because there is allegedly more potential with embryonic stem cells, especially looking at the natural state of adult vs. embryonic. But is there really more potential with embryonic stem cell research? Is it necessary to fund it with millions of dollars? Take a look at the recent developments in the embryonic/adult stem cell research saga:

If you believe the scientific fact of human life existing before birth, then we have come to a dilemma: do we have to end lives to do research to protect lives? Well, it’s a foggy situation, you might say. How about this: If it’s okay to sacrifice some life to research to save other lives, why don’t we have people with disabilities give their lives to research? How about people who are depressed and don’t want to live anymore? How about a “normal” person be electively chosen to die for research? If it’s for the purpose of saving other people, isn’t that okay?

Hopefully your answer is “no”. It’s not okay to have a person killed in the same of scientific research.

And after doing research myself, it’s clear that stem cell research is not as simple as people say it is. However, it’s incredibly exciting with all the potential.

Adult stem cells have demonstrated incredible potential as the articles I linked to have shown. Embryonic stem cell research, on the other hand, has not had a major breakthrough lately that I was able to find.

It’s time we look at the facts. If you want to support stem cell research that’s actually making a difference, I recommend you support the JPII Medical Research Institute which focuses on “the most ethical and cost-effective way of conducting medical research to help develop therapies and cures for a variety of diseases.”

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