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THE COLLISION BETWEEN SCIENCE, POLITICS, RELIGION IN THE STEM CELL CONTROVERSY

By Supriya Donthamsetty 
  

One basic principle of the Christian religion is to protect the lives of the unborn. As the most adamant protesters against abortion, the Christians believe that if children are to be allowed to come to Christ, they must first be allowed to come into the world. They abide by the Bible which characterizes those who kill children as heathens. 2 Chronicles 28:3 states: ..But he was an evil king;...He even went out to the Valley of Hinnom, and it was not just to burn incense to the idols, for he even sacrificed his own children in the fire, just like the heathen nations that were thrown out of the land by the Lord to make room for Israel. In science, on the other hand, the basic ideal is that: knowledge is power. To scientists, there is no fear of mysticism that stands in the way of scientific advancement. For example, with an objective and rational view of the world, Galileo Galilei rejected the claim that biblical authority could decide matters of astronomy. In 1615, he claimed: "But I do not feel obliged to believe that God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them...This must be especially true in those sciences of which but the faintest trace...is to be found in the Bible. There is an age old rift between science and religion. Science and religion clash over fundamental issues such as abortion. For most people, abortion is a black or white issue--pro-choice or pro-life. The progress of the current biotechnological revolution has shed new light on the abortion controversy. Now the controversy is not over whether or not abortion should be legal, but rather, whether or not human embryonic tissue may be used for scientific research. Recent findings on the potential of embryonic stem cells in healing various life-threatening diseases and injuries have re-ignited the ethical debate of protecting the lives of the unborn. In this recurring controversy, politics has served as the bridge between science and religion. In an effort to quell the debate, recent legislation has sought not to emphasize the rift between the opposing parties, but rather to create an alliance or, at the very least, a compromise between the two. The following paper will examine the collision between science, politics, and the ethical debate surrounding the stem cell controversy. Specifically, the paper will illustrate what stem cells are, the recent developments in stem cell research, and the political solutions which have already been implemented. Finally, with the proposal of possible future solutions and scenarios, the paper will explore speculations upon which direction stem cells will take in the future.

 

 

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are cells that have the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and give rise to specialized cells. In human development, when a sperm fertilizes an egg, the fertilized egg is totipotent, meaning that its potential is total. The cell divides into identical totipotent cells in the first hours after fertilization. If any of these cells is placed into a woman's uterus, it has the potential to develop into a fetus.

Four days after fertilization and after several cycles of cell division, totipotent cells form a hollow sphere of cells called a blastocyst. The blastocyst consists of an outer layer of cells and an inner cell mass found inside the hollow sphere. While the outer layer of cells will become the placenta and other supporting tissues, the inner cell mass will go on to form virtually all of the tissues of the human body. Although the inner cell mass cells can form virtually every type of cell found in the human body, they cannot form an organism because they are unable to give rise to the placenta and supporting tissues necessary for development in the human uterus. For this reason, the inner cell mass cells are said to be pluripotent--they can give rise to many types of cells but not all types of cells necessary for fetal development. Pluripotent stem cells, therefore, are not totipotent and they are not embryos. The pluripotent stem cells undergo further specialization that will eventually give rise to cells that have a particular function (for example, skin stem cells, etc.).

--Sources of Stem Cells

There are three primary sources of stem cells--embryonic stem cells, embryonic germ cells, and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are derived from a very early embryo. Embryonic germ cells, on the other hand, are collected from fetal tissue at a somewhat later stage. Both embryonic stem cells and embryonic germ cells have particular promise for a wide range of therapeutic applications because they are capable of giving rise to virtually any cell type. Embryonic stem cells may be obtained from fertilized eggs left over in fertility clinics. For this reason, the use of embryonic stem cells for research is less ethically controversial than embryonic germ cells. Embryonic germ cells may be obtained from an aborted fetus. Because of the moral concerns surrounding abortion, research on embryonic germ cells is highly contested. Besides planned abortion, embryonic germ cells may also be obtained from a spontaneous abortion. Obtaining embryonic germ cells from a spontaneously aborted fetus, however, poses clinical difficulty because the cells can only be obtained during a narrow developmental phase within the first eight weeks after conception. The least controversial source of stem cells is that which is derived from the adult. Adult stem cells, obtained from mature tissues, differentiate into a narrower range of cell types. Although there has been some promising new evidence of the potential of adult stem cells, there still remain drawbacks to the adult stem cells which make embryonic stem cell research still desirable. For example, stem cells for all cells and tissue types have not yet been found in the adult human. Moreover, stem cells in adults are often present in only minute quantities and are difficult to isolate and purify. Finally, adult stem cells may contain more DNA abnormalities caused by exposure to daily living, including sunlight, toxins, and errors made during DNA replication than would be found in fetal embryonic pluripotent stem cells.

--Latest Developments in Stem Cell Research

Since the NIH Guidelines were made effective in August 2000, American researchers have been financially and publicly able to perform experiments with stem cells. American scientists can now join the international scientific community in this endeavor. The following are a description of only a few of the latest developments in the global stem cell research field.

September 21, 2000--Stem Cell Transplants Treat Spine Damage in Rats, Atlanta GA. In this experiment, rats with spinal cord injuries were divided into three groups. The "control?group received an inactive injection and the other two groups received two different injections of stem cells into the area of the spine where the damage had been done. The investigators found that animals in the control group all developed paralysis within 167 days after irradiation, but 32% and 36% of the rats in the groups receiving the stem cell transplant had no paralysis.

September 20, 2000--Italian Research Suggests Adult Stem Cells More Flexible than Once Believed, Milan, Italy. In this experiment, scientists took some undeveloped brain stem cells, naturally occurring in tiny quantities in adult mice, and managed to "re-program?them to start behaving like muscle cells. The Italian team produced clones of neuronal stem cells. They were then placed in a culture of muscle cells, and some mouse neuronal stem cells were also injected into developing mouse muscles. In both culture and in the mouse, there was clear evidence that the brain cells were able to divide and develop into muscle cells.

September, 2000--Chinese Researchers Use Stem Cells to Regenerate Damaged Skin Tissues, Beijing, China. The Chinese are already using stem cells in everyday situations. Currently, regenerated skin (developed from stem cells) is being used to treat extensive and deep burns.

Current Political Solutions

Thus far in the stem cell controversy, politics has served as a bridge between scientists and average citizens. Scientific language is not everyday jargon. Since scientists generally feel that it is not their job to translate their findings into discernible English, politicians are the vehicle through which the translation is made. Instead of leaving citizens up to assume and criticize what the scientists are doing and to keep the scientists aware of the ethical issues they are raising, some current political solutions have attempted to accommodate both sides. The NIH Guidelines, congressional hearings, and the media have all served as political lines of communication.

--NIH Guidelines

Because federal law prohibits tax dollars from being used for embryo research, the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) has taken the initiative in funding stem cell research. Although NIH has agreed to fund research on stem cells, it will not fund the collection of the stem cells themselves. The issue of funding of research and many other legalities surrounding the stem cell controversy were concretely outlined in the NIH Guidelines which went into effect August 2000. The NIH Guidelines were drafted to serve as a line of communication between citizens concerned with ethical issues and scientists concerned with progressing further into the potential application of human pluripotent stem cells. The Guidelines established structural boundaries to this very abstract and controversial topic. The Guidelines established procedures to help ensure that NIH-funded research in this area is conducted in an ethical and legal manner.

The Guidelines distinguish the use of human pluripotent stem cells that is eligible for NIH funding from that which is ineligible. Documentation must be properly filled out by the awardee receiving the funds and submitted to NIH. NIH funds may be used to derive stem cells from fetal tissue. NIH funds may not be used to derive stem cells from human embryos. NIH research funded under these Guidelines will involve human stem cells derived 1) from human fetal tissue; or 2) from human embryos that are the result of in vitro fertilization that are in excess of clinical need. The law and the Guidelines also guard against encouraging abortion by requiring that the decision to have an abortion be made apart from and prior to the decision to donate tissue. The restriction was designed so that the person treating the individuals seeking fertility treatment, who is involved in decisions such as how many embryos to produce, is not the person seeking to derive the stem cells. This separation, established in the Guidelines, is an attempt to ensure that embryos will not be created in numbers greater than necessary for fertility treatment.

--Current Legislation

In the midst of the busy presidential campaign, current congressional legislation has served to inform the public that legislation involving the federal funding for stem cell research is currently work in progress. The chairman of the Senate labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee, and the panel's ranking minority member recently announced that they have been assured by Senate leadership that their jointly sponsored bill, The Stem Cell Research Act of 2000 (s.2015) will be brought to a vote before Congress adjourns for the year next month.

--Media

The media has been the most effective tool thus far for slowly and understandably introducing the public to the stem cell issue. The stem cell issue has received the most attention in the media when associated with a famous television star. These media clips catch the eye of average television watchers and in the process, inform them a little bit about stem cells. For example, when surfing through channels, a viewer may see Mary Tyler Moore (juvenile diabetes victim), or Christopher Reeve (has injured spinal cord) on CSPAN advocating for public funding for stem cell research. Now the viewer may or may not know what stem cells are, but at least he/she recognizes the television stars. They see these famous Hollywood icons in front of a room filled with congressional bureaucrats on Capitol Hill. This is enough to convince the average viewer that the issue at hand is a serious one. Also, interviews of famous people on such popular prime time news shows as 20/20 have been valuable sources of communication about stem cells. Interviews with Parkinson's victim, Michael J. Fox, for example, allow him a platform to voice his commitment and financial contributions to stem cell research. A famous Hollywood sweetheart such as Michael J. Fox may be more informative on the stem cell issue than, say, an instructional video. In addition to airing the advocation of stem cell advancements, the media has also presented the public with the counter-argument as well. In general, the United States public knows that when conservative Christian right wing activists appear on shows like Larry King Live, a hot topic is usually on the agenda. Well-known figureheads such as Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell make media appearances to condemn issues such as the research of embryonic stem cells. They do so not only to inform the public, but also to build a mass coalition for their side.

 

Possible Future Solutions

An entire revamping of the educational system is a possible future solution. United States education is based on the ideal of a well-rounded curriculum. By reforming education into a mathematical, scientific, and computational based system, children may grow up with a more rational and objective view of the world. With this view, subjects such as the biotechnological revolution will fit into the curriculum. In such a system, a biology lab in which students perform experiments with stem cells may be a possibility. Science and social science will be interrelated and detached from ethics.

Another possible solution is the sustained dialogue among scientists, policy makers, ethicists, theologians, and the public. Congressional hearings, public meetings by governmental agencies, and media coverage have already begun to push stem cell research into a spotlight. There should be continued support for this open manner that has allowed individuals to observe or participate in these processes. Perhaps there could even be a global institution that monitors stem cell research around the world. This institution would be responsible for gathering information from each faction--scientists, policymakers, theologians, public, etc--involved in the stem cell controversy. In turn, the institution would post findings in international newspapers, on international television shows, and on the world wide web.

Whatever solutions are to be made, they must be introduced to the public in a gradual manner. This is to avoid spontaneous revolt or violence, such as bombings to abortion clinics, and to minimize opposition. The issue should be introduced slowly such that the term "stem cell?becomes a household word. The public should be fully educated before any drastic experimental or political measures are taken. Furthermore, as much as possible, an effort should be made to separate embryonic stem cell research-and researchers- from the manipulation or destruction of embryos. In addition, public funds should not be directly used to support the destruction of embryos to produce embryonic stem cell lines. As a result, the wary public may gradually separate stem cell research from abortion. In addition, an effort should also be made to stress the fact that with the acceptance and continuance of in vitro fertilization, many fertilized eggs go to waste as a result of excess in the fertility clinics; therefore, it should be argued that embryonic stem cell research is a way of producing some benefit from what would otherwise be regarded as a situation of loss. With this argument, the link between embryonic stem cell research and wrongful acts is remote enough to permit public funding of this research.

Possible Future Scenarios

One possible future scenario is the complete depletion of stem cell researchers in the United States and Europe. These scientists will flee to countries such as China and India where controls on scientific experiments are not as harsh. Such countries will invite the "refugees?because scientific advancement and competition in these areas are considered vital to become a prominent world power. In such a scenario, the United States may become inferior to such countries. In addition, United States and European citizens will travel to these countries to receive treatments. Because the treatments will be in high demand, the cost of procedures will be high and, hence, the economies of such countries will grow.

Another possible scenario is the creation of a "black market?for human embryos. Because federal tax dollars are prohibited from being used for embryo research and because NIH will fund the research but not the collection of stem cells, this leaves private companies to act as suppliers of stem cells. The NIH Guidelines state that there can be no incentive for donation of embryos for research purposes. This is to help ensure that all donations are voluntary and that individuals will not be coerced into donating their embryos. However, with the high demand for embryos expected around the world, a form of "black market?is inevitable. Embryo donation will follow the same path of what has become the accepted practice of selling human eggs to he highest bidder, with ads for egg donors offering upwards of $50,000.

A final scenario would be the complete halt of stem cell research in the United States. If, for example, the Republicans take the White House in the upcoming election and they take the House and Senate as well, they could perhaps give into pressures from the conservative coalition and halt any type of stem cell research. This would be a reversion back to conservative times and the United States would definitely get left behind in the scientific realm. Although this is an extreme scenario, the abortion issue is a hot topic in campaign 2000 and may have implications for the future. On the one hand, with the recent approval of the abortion pill, RU486, the controversy over the legality of abortion may soon be obsolete. On the other hand, Governor George W. Bush is a staunch pro-life advocate. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he said: "we will protect the lives of the elderly, the poor,...and the lives of the unborn.?"

As the United States undergoes a transition to a new administration, the direction that stem cell research will take in the future is left to speculation. In the midst of such a situation, perhaps the most attractive option for scientists would be to flee to their own island or even planet. Scientists from around the world could ban together and create a "planet stem cell" in outer space. Here they would have no ethical or political barriers. They could immerse themselves into their experiments, and take any sort of risk. They could create treatments for any sort of disease or injury and even treatments that would allow them to live forever.


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