What Kind of Stem Cells?

John ArmstrongBio-Medical Ethics

The stem cell debate is going to be even bigger in the 110th Congress. Democrats have promised to  overturn the president’s opposition to harvesting embryonic stem cells if possible. This whole issue amazes me, at least on one level. As an issue it is, in microcosm, a picture of our culture and its putting incredible hope in all medical and research processes that can be found to cure any and all problems. Promises are made that have little or no basis in facts and few have the ability to discern the differences.

First, we need to know what stem cells are in order to understand the issue. Stem cells are simply human cells that have no specialized function or structure and thus are believed to have incredible potential to develop into other kinds of cells in the human body. The ability of such cells to adapt and/or develop offers great promise medically. Medical researchers are trying to use stem cells to repair specific tissues and/or to grow human organs. Some positive benefits have already been reaped from using human stem cells. There is no ethical reason whatsoever to oppose the use and develop of adult stem cells. There is also no ethical reason to oppose the use of stem cells taken from the human placenta of a newborn baby or from the blood, bone marrow, or from the other tissues of humans.

Second, embryonic stem cells are the real issue at the center of this present ethical debate. These are stem cells harvested from aborted fetuses or from fertilized eggs. The issue here is the definition of human life and what is the right thing to do with such life in terms of research. Some see in this issue a Pandora’s box while others see a gold mine for possible cures to many difficult and life threatening problems. The question, as always, is whether this research will take us further into a brave new world scenario. Given what has already been done with such human stem cells, and the human tendency toward embryonic cloning, caution is surely called for at the present time in human history.

So, Christians should not oppose stem cell use or stem cell research. What they should oppose is embryonic stem cell research becuase of what is involed in getting these stem cells. It is important to understand that there is very little evidence, other than a lot of major hope and hype, that embryonic stem cells really offer the kind of solutions that strong advocates claim for them at the present time.

The next time someone brings this subject up make sure you make these proper distinctions. It always helps when Christians express their concerns with facts, not with prejudice or misinformation.

On May 6, 2007, we will host a Chicago-area ACT 3 Forum on the stem cell debate led by Dr. Charles McGowen. Chuck is a retired professor of internal medicine and family physician, who is a member of our advisory board. Chuck is a clear thinker, a clear speaker, and has devoted a great deal of time and interest to this subject. This forum will allow many to learn and ask questions openly. More information will appear on the Web site in a few weeks.