by Marvin Ackerman M.D.
If there is one thing that we humans have learned to do extremely well, it’s to disagree. This controversial attitude extends into all facets of our existence – politics, religion, property, sex, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Science and morality have long been at odds over numerous differences of interpretation of evidence. Why not? After all, when exploring the boundaries of discovery, scientists rarely if ever agree completely.
Similarly, the interpretations of questions of morality vary widely not only from one part of the world to another, one religion to another, one culture to another, one country to another, one state to another, one city to another, one community to another, and, let’s face it, one individual to another. So if scientists are unable to agree among themselves, and moralists are unable to agree among themselves, how can we expect agreement between the two concepts? Recognizing the profound differences that have arisen with ever increasing potential for conflict, and which have now reached a crescendo due to the rapid advances in stem cell biology and cloning capabilities, the New England Journal of Medicine decided to publish three articles about the two topics of controversy in its May 16, 2002 edition. However, realizing the urgency of the topic, the editors provided an early release on May 6th at their web site. I am certain that no two of my readers will agree fully prior to reading these articles, and probably the same differences will remain afterward, but at least opinions might be tempered by a better understanding of what is at stake for the future.
Obviously stem cell research is far from set in stone. To quote Dr. Weissman, author of the first article, “there is little certitude in the science of stem cells.” Nevertheless, researchers have already demonstrated profoundly important possibilities for studying and treating human diseases. We can insert human disease genes into mouse embryonic stem cells and thereby create mice with replicas of the human disease available for study. Work on human embryonic stem cells is well underway. Although it is believed that there are specific stem cells for most tissues, it’s unclear when they play a role in an experiment or treatment because numerous other cell types may be involved. There is also uncertainty as to the touted ability of one type of stem cell to change into another type, a process known as transdifferentiation. Until this can be properly clarified, it is not possible to properly formulate a rational public policy about such research or the medical use of stem cells for transplantation. However, when dealing with humans, the research necessary for determining such crucial information risks actual creation of a human gamete or blastocyst, considered by many to be the first stage of human life. Another problem is the probability that genetic disease does not always develop unless the proper combination of gene factors is present. Work is underway in many centers to develop such stem cell lines, but when this involves the use of embryos created in clinics for in vitro fertilization and the use of nuclear transplantation, religious and ethical considerations come into play leading to the possibility of interference by congressional legislation in an attempt to ban the practice. Twenty-five years ago similar objections were raised concerning recombinant DNA, but today the immense strides forward for treating formerly untreatable diseases have silenced the naysayers. Today there is also the fear that transplantation of human cell nuclei will lead to human cloning. Unfortunately, at this stage of the game, there is no way to reconcile the opposing points of view because the technology requires the use of the blastocysts created during this research. These are burning issues being taken up by our Congress, the President, religious leaders, etc. as well as numerous foreign countries. If we ban such research, how many suffering people will go on suffering, and what will be the effect when rogue researchers, or researchers from other countries continue to do the forbidden experimentation? Cloning of animals is already a reality. Human cloning is around the corner, and it carries immense promise for developing fantastic new treatments for all sorts of diseases. Therapeutic human cloning has the potential also for creating vast differences of opinion based upon the numerous religious and moral concepts prevalent in the world.
Before my readers solidify their own opinions regarding this most intriguing and controversial topic, I would highly recommend actually reading the three articles that I referred to above. It is not necessary to understand all the fine scientific aspects. Rather, I would suggest that you examine two major opposing arguments – the reasons for an objection to stem cell research and the potentiality for its benefit to humankind. If reading the entire articles is too challenging a project, there are excellent summaries at the end of the first two that spell out the major points. The third article concerns cloning and the U.S. Congress. It should not present any significant problem for comprehension.
Take a drop of water from a pond.
Place it under a microscope.
Notice the tiny one-celled creatures.
Swimming around free.
Are they alive?
How about bacteria and fungi?
And those even tinier viruses.
Think about it a moment.
All those creatures multiply.
Are they alive?
Do they know day from night?
Does a virus know it can kill a human?
Does a sperm cell know it’s supposed to fertilize an egg?
Does the egg know?
Are they alive?
Does joining the two signal the beginning of life?
Or does it start a bit later,
When the first cell divides into two,
Or maybe four, or perhaps even sixteen?
Are they alive?
At what point does the creator say,
“There, I have succeeded.
I have created true life.”