Clarity on Stem Cells Needed

There is a lot of clouded thinking on the issue of stem cell research. A good case in point is an editorial in today’s Australian (August 7). It suffers not just from mental fatigue, but ethical myopia.

Entitled “Let the debate begin”, the editorial criticizes John Howard for his “closed mind” on therapeutic cloning.  The context for all this concerns how the Federal Government should respond to recommendations made last year by the Lockhart Review committee. The Lockhart panel recommended allowing human embryos to be cloned by the somatic cell nuclear transfer process (SCNT, the same process used to create Dolly the sheep), and then have the stem cells extracted soon after the creation of the new embryo. Experimentation can then be conducted on the stem cells, in the hopes of developing therapies and cures for various conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes.

The Prime Minister and most of his Cabinet do not agree with these recommendations, and want the status quo to continue, keeping a ban on ‘therapeutic’ cloning. They argue instead that real success lies with adult stem cell research, and that this is the way we should proceed.

The editorial unfortunately repeats an old canard: that so-called therapeutic cloning is somehow dissimilar to reproductive cloning. But this is quite incorrect. Both processes use exactly the same procedure. In both cases, a new human embryo is created via SCNT. It is just that in the so-called reproductive cloning process, the embryo would be allowed to develop, be implanted in a womb, and eventually be born as any other embryo. But as the editorial does admit, the extraction of stem cells in the “therapeutic” cloning method results in the embryo being destroyed. However the editorial then argues that there never was “any intention to create a human being”.

But that is exactly what both cloning processes do: they create a new and unique human being. In one process the new member of the human race is killed just days into his or her new life, while in the other he or she is allowed to live. Thus both processes are reproductive. They are exactly the same in that regard. It is just a question of what happens to the embryo: how long is he or she allowed to live?

And with the embryo prematurely killed in order to extract the stem cells, this process cannot be called ‘therapeutic,’ at least not for the hapless embryo that must be sacrificed for some possible cure for someone else. Indeed that cure may or may not eventuate, and if it does, it will be many years into the future. They certainly will not be happening any time soon, as honest scientists will readily admit. The idea that embryonic stem cell research will get quadriplegics out of their wheelchairs in the next year or two is just fantasy.

John Howard of course is quite right to object to any clone and kill bill, and this is exactly what is at stake. Why legislate for the death of the newly formed embryo? Why kill a very young member of the human race in the hope of a cure some day for other members of the human race? This is just what the Nazis were willing to do over a half century ago. The world rightly condemned those practices then. Why support them now?

Interestingly, labor union leader Joe de Bruyn made just this very comparison several days ago. He was shouted down by many, but his observations are very much to the point. “Therapeutic cloning is the creation of human life for the express purpose of destroying it so you can obtain the stem cells and do research,” de Bruyn said.

“That’s no different to what Hitler’s doctors used to do during the last century. They experimented on human life, and that’s what this is.” Quite so. Since when is it ethical to take the life of one human being in order to potentially save the life of another? If a person wishes to volunteer, to offer his life for another, that is one thing. But obviously the new embryo is not in a position to volunteer. There is simply no choice in the matter for the unborn victim. Where are the pro-choicers when you need them?

The editorial then makes this quite incredible statement: “Adult stem cells also hold great promise.” Now that has got to be the understatement of the century, if not the millennia. While embryonic stem cell therapy is only hype, with not one human cure, hundreds of people have been successfully treated with adult stem cells. What sort of ‘promise’ is that? It is reality, not hype.

As one commentator said some years ago, embryonic stem cell therapy is the Paris Hilton of regenerative medicine: all hype and no substance. All the runs on the board to date come from adult stem cells, with absolutely nothing from embryonic stem cells.

Health Minister Tony Abbott thus rightly said several days ago that supporters of embryonic stem cell research were “guilty of over-peddling hope to vulnerable people”. He rightly said that there is “very little evidence embryonic stem cell research is the health nirvana” portrayed by its supporters.

And there are major problems associated with this type of research. One is the issue of immune rejection, a problem overcome entirely by adult stem cell use, since the stem cells come from the very person seeking the treatment. And animal tests to date have shown a worrying tendency for embryonic stem cell treatments to result in negative consequences such as cancerous tumor formations. All in all this is not a very promising medical avenue to be traveling along.

Given that there are no ethical problems associated with adult stem cell therapy, and they alone are providing all the cures thus far, I know where I would put my money. So why does the Australian keep repeating the mantra of embryonic stem cells? Good question. But it does not really seem to have the best interests of sufferers at heart. If it did, it would be fully backing the only known winner: adult stem cells.

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5 Replies to “Clarity on Stem Cells Needed”

  1. My Question is, why do we think that we play “God” in experementing with human embryo’s. Fifty years ago we were appaled at such experiments been conducted on human’s during the Nazi reign, but complacency seems to have crept into out thought processes, We must stand up for what is right and ethical. Thank “God” that our Health Minister and parlimenterians are opposed to such research. We must have a voice for the vunverable in our Society.

    Rae Wallace Devonport, Tas

  2. Thank you for a clearly stated analysis of The Australian editorial and it is a pity that your letter was not printed. It is interesting to note that a very similar editorial appeared in the UK Daily Telegraph in early June this year but at least the Daily Telegraph did print a letter in reply from Dr Helen Watt of The Linacre Centre which showed the editorial to be both ignorant and disingenuous — just like The Australian’s one. The struggle to protect the unborn is clearly a wordwide one.

    John McCarthy

  3. Bill, some question that seem to be missing from the ESC debate is “why are the ESC advocates so passionate?” “What will they get out of ESC?” “Who will be paying them and how much will the funders stand to gain?” If they are so passionate about curing diseases then surely they’d have abandoned ESC in favour of ASC long ago. Is it cosmetic companies, pharmaceutical companies, the military? I understand the spiritual battle but I can’t see the money which must be driving the issue.
    I’d appreciate your comments. Thanks

    Dianne Grocott

  4. thanks Dianne
    Yes there is big money to be made, and Big Pharma, the drug industry, yes even the cosmetics companies are all eager to get their hands on embryos for testing and other purposes. Of course some are fooled by the hype and do believe human therapies and cures will be forthcoming, But many have simple financial interests at heart. See for example my review of Science, Money and Politics in the science section.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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