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Mon, Oct. 14

Let's use clinics' spare embryos for research

The hullabaloo about using embryos for stem cell research is more heat than light.

Opponents try to confuse the issue by saying that we shouldn't create human beings to use them for research, but I have never heard any responsible person advocate that it is not necessary to create embryos. They already exist in vast numbers. 

An example: Our niece, Heather, and her husband have been trying to get pregnant for many months, without success, and now they are trying in vitro fertilization. Doctors surgically removed 12 eggs from her ovaries, then successfully fertilized six of them with her husband's sperm in a laboratory. (That's how the term test tube baby originated. The world's first test tube baby is now about 25 years old – alive and well in England.)

A fertilized egg is called an embryo, by definition, but some people choose to call it an innocent human being. Doctors allowed all six of Heather's embryos to grow in the lab for about six days, until each became a tiny clump of cells about the size of the head of a pin.

At this stage, embryos consist of nothing but stem cells, which can become any kind of tissue. They placed two of them in her uterus in the hope that one would attach itself and eventually become a bouncing baby.

The other four went into a freezer, and will remain there until the next step – whatever that turns out to be.

If the first attempt to get an embryo to grow is not successful, doctors will thaw two of the others and implant them in her womb, hoping that one of them sticks. If that also fails, they'll try once again with the last two. (Did you know that fertility clinics freeze and thaw innocent human beings routinely? Somebody should tell the attorney general!) Those are facts. Now let's look at consequences:

When doctors fertilize six eggs and one baby is the result, then the other five embryos either go to waste or remain frozen. For those doctors subsequently use, one survives while the others go down the drain one way or another. But if Heather gets pregnant, then the question becomes: What happens to those unneeded embryos still in the freezer? The clinic can keep them frozen forever, can destroy them, or use them for some other purpose.

Stem cell research offers the possibility of major advances in the treatment of Alzheimer's, strokes, heart attacks, arthritis, etc. Scientists want to use surplus embryos for this purpose because embryonic cells have the greatest potential for success. It takes federal money for a project this big, but that is not available now because President Bush stopped it – to placate the religious right.

Forty-eight Nobel Prize winners have asked President Bush to change his policy. So have 58 senators from both political parties, but he still says "No." Personally, I'd give more credence to Nobel Prize winners than to lobbyists for religious dogma, but the president is seeking votes.

Consider this: If we refused to use tax dollars for anything that some religious group believes is wrong, we would have no military, no medical system, no higher education, etc.

Fertility clinic freezers are filled with embryos that will never become babies, and more are created daily. The real question is what to do with them.

Tell me: what is the difference between leaving an embryo in a freezer … or destroying it … or sending it down the drain in a failed attempt at pregnancy … or using it for research? Each option has the same ending for the embryo; only one benefits humanity.

Maybe you have a different suggestion. It's your turn to think.

E-mail the columnist at aherron@cableone.net.

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