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Stem cell restriction is a mistake

The ProfessorBy Steven Martinovich

(March 15, 2004) Earlier this month Canada's Senate social affairs committee unanimously approved the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, legislation that would ban human cloning, surrogate motherhood, the sale of human sperm and eggs, regulate fertility clinics and set standards for embryonic stem cell research. The committee's stamp of approval all but guarantees passage of the legislation that had its roots ten years ago in the work by the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies.

Proponents of the legislation have painted it as a victory for ethics and it's hard to argue that fertility clinics shouldn't be required to meet certain standards. Other portions of the bill, however, betray the sort of conservative thinking that we Canadians routinely attribute to the United States. In fact, the bill enforces much more conservative thinking on human reproduction than can currently be found south of the border, such as a ban on surrogate mothers.

The most troubling aspect of the legislation, however, are the standards set for stem cell research. Scientists will be able to work with surplus embryos created during the course of infertility treatments but they will not be able to clone embryos for research purposes. This restriction is based on a lack of understanding about the science of stem cell research and what an embryo really is.

Embryonic stem cells are typically produced from five-day old embryos, or blastocysts. These embryos are roughly 150 cells in size, about the size of a speck of dust -- 0.15mm in size. Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research argue that destroying these blastocysts is equivalent to destroying a human being. If this is the case, however, then every cell in our body that we could potentially harvest stem cells from is also a potential human being.

Obtaining stem cells today is inelegant. Scientists are forced to clone or create embryos to create new stem cells because the technology does not exist to be able to regress cells to earlier stages of development. In the future, however, it is expected that scientists will be able to do just that. That means that they could take a skin cell from you, regress it to a cell that is able to developing into a living being and implant into a womb.

Using the moral standards of stem cell research opponents, that means that the use of any cell, whether it came from an embryo created for its stem cells or a sample from your body, for therapeutic treatments is morally wrong. In this not too distant future, there won't be any difference between the two approaches because both procedures are capable of turning out derived human beings.

"I cannot see any intrinsic, morally significant difference between a mature skin cell, the totipotent stem cell derived from it, and a fertilized egg. They are all cells which could give rise to a person if certain conditions obtained.... If all our cells could be persons, then we cannot appeal to the fact that an embryo could be a person to justify the special treatment we give it," remarked bioethicist Julian Savulescu in the April 1999 issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics.

It's not debatable that there are ethical issues, many of which we have yet to even discover, that need to be resolved when it comes to biotechnology. Research into cloning and other reproductive technologies holds great promise and also the potential for unpleasant unintended consequences. That said our ethics must be based on a clear understanding of the science behind these prospective technologies.

Tying the hands of our scientists by restricting their ability to explore the potential of embryonic stem cell research is not based a sober analysis of the science, but the same kind of misguided moral qualms that accompanied other new medical technologies, such as organ transplants. We owe more to the future generations who will be saved by therapeutic treatments derived from stem cell research then moral objections based on ignorance of the real science.

Thanks for reading,

Steven Martinovich


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