News - Abortion debate clouds science

Embryonic research both pro-life and humane

If a promising new method of curing debilitating illnesses was within our grasp, most of us would, no doubt, want to push full speed ahead to make it a reality. But when this new therapy touches on the most volatile issue of our time — abortion — a clear-cut decision becomes a dilemma.

Such is the controversy surrounding research on the use of embryonic stem cells. Scientists believe these little wonders could someday be used to cure diabetes and Parkinson's disease, restore movement to the paralyzed, grow skin for burn victims and repair damaged hearts. But to those who believe life begins at the very moment of conception, using these cells amounts to the destruction of human life, no matter the noble purpose.

The Bush administration has been debating whether federal funds should be used for such research, which President Bush opposed during his 2000 campaign. Organized anti-abortion groups and the Catholic Church have exerted tremendous pressure to stop funding, but in this debate, the pro-life the movement is split. Conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Orrin Hatch are on the same side as pro-abortionists Bill Clinton and Kate Michelman. Strange bedfellows indeed.

First, a bit of scientific background: When a human egg is fertilized, it divides into a small number of identical cells. As a fetus grows and these cells multiply, they will differentiate — that is, some will become nerve cells, others blood or muscle cells or one of the myriad other cell types making up a developed human. But in their embryonic state, these undifferentiated cells, or stem cells, still have the potential to become any kind of cell in the body.

Scientists believe someday they might be able to control development of stem cells, growing specific kinds of cells into particular types of tissue. In essence, they could create spare parts to replace organs or tissues that are damaged or malfunctioning.

The embryos that would be used in this research are a by-product of creating test-tube babies. Doctors take eggs from a woman, fertilize them with sperm in a laboratory and then reimplant them to produce children. A successful pregnancy often requires a number of attempts, so doctors performing in vitro fertilization typically create and freeze a number of embryos. Those left over, once parents are done having babies, are usually destroyed.

Proponents of stem cell research liken the use of embryos to organ donation — taking something that has no other use to help people in need. Opponents see it as deliberately sacrificing a human life, which is unacceptable regardless of cause. All of us were, after all, embryos at some point.

Opponents also argue that stem cells can be cultivated from adult humans, eliminating the need to use embryos. But many scientists in the field insist using adult cells is more difficult and doesn't offer as much promise, particularly in the short term. Proponents also point out that embryos used in this research are willingly donated by parents.

While the debate over stem cell research has become entangled in abortion politics, there is a key distinction. If a woman is pregnant, the fertilized embryo will develop into a baby, barring abortion or miscarriage. But embryos left over from in vitro fertilization will not, on their own, develop into a viable human unless there is medical intervention.

Abortion, then, interrupts a natural process that many believe is ordained by God. In the case of embryos, there is no process to interrupt.

This debate vividly shows how the polarization over abortion leads to the triumph of principle over common sense. A handful of frozen cells is not the same thing as a newborn baby. Neither, on the other side of the issue, is a child days from birth, about to be destroyed during a partial-birth abortion, merely a fetus. Our ability to make rational distinctions has become clouded.

We also should keep in mind that regardless of what the Bush administration decides, embryonic stem cell research will go forward. It is now, and would remain, legal if financed with private funds.

However, if federal funds are used, research would have to be conducted under ethical guidelines established by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). If federal funding is precluded, private researchers would not be subject to NIH limits or direction. Given the ethical concerns raised by this issue, NIH oversight is preferable.

When we, in the name of science and compassion, allow human intrusion into the process of creating life, we also create ethical quagmires. That's precisely why the Catholic Church opposes in vitro fertilization to begin with. But unless we are willing to let John Paul and the boys dictate fertility policy — which I doubt — we must face the issue of what to do with leftover embryos.

Using them to further a life-giving purpose is both pro-life and humane.??

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