Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
Wed, July 17

Let's use embryos for medical research

Everybody knows that Ronald Reagan has Alzheimer's disease.  

It is incurable, it gets progressively worse, and now the former president no longer recognizes even his wife, Nancy. He will die of some related cause, but it could take several more years. My brother-in-law died of Alzheimer's after being institutionalized for several years, and it ain't pretty.

Recently, Nancy Reagan announced her opposition to President Bush's restrictions against stem cell research, believing that such research could help find a cure for Alzheimer's.

Three years ago George Bush announced that no federal money would go for stem cell research, except on a very limited basis. It prohibited harvesting any new stem cells or using them for research on the theory that this would be messing around with unborn babies.

It is true that using embryonic stem cells means that those cells cannot grow into real babies. Instead, the cells help grow specific kinds of human tissue such as brain and nerve, heart, bone, blood, etc. Some people believe that using the cells in this manner is equivalent to abortion, and they convinced the president.

What's the real story on stem cells?

A human sperm and egg join to create an embryo. The fertilized egg then divides and re-divides until, after three to five days, it consists of a few dozen cells – a tiny clump so small that it is visible only under a microscope. These are the stem cells that eventually can become any type of body tissue. The small cluster, called a blastocyst, has no consciousness, no ability to feel anything.

This usually takes place in a laboratory, but sometimes it happens in a woman's body and the body expels the egg or doctors remove it for some medical reason.

The same type of thing also happens routinely in a fertility clinic, but nobody gets upset about it there. (Apparently, as long as you're making more people it's OK to waste some.) Modern in-vitro techniques involve creating multiple embryos in the laboratory and then implanting a chosen few into the mother in the hope that at least one of them will get born. That's where triplets and sextuplets come from, and also some "terminations" if too many embryos survive. For every embryo that becomes a child, several others go to waste. Doctors could use them for stem cell research, but our president panders to the religious right and says: No! That would be sinful.

How can one claim that a 5-day-old embryo, without any degree of consciousness or feeling, is a human being? To me, that's more far-fetched than declaring that an acorn is an oak tree. It's more like saying that a tiny, pollinated oak blossom is an oak tree.

Don't be misled by a possible point of confusion. A few years ago, researchers used fetal brain tissue for some experiments. That required a "fetus" with enough brain to provide tissue, and they came from abortions. Today we're talking about the stem cells from 5-day-old "embryos." Much different.

It's far too late to help Ronald Reagan, but the medical/scientific community would love to see if stem cells can replace tissue destroyed by Alzheimer's, or strokes, or heart attacks, or arthritis. There are real people, already alive, with big medical problems, waiting and hoping for the benefits from stem cell research. Isn't that of more concern than 5-day-old embryos?

People will do such research. As far as I know, we're the only nation that has banned it, but we are the ones with the best minds and resources and should be the leaders.

It would be a much better use of surplus embryos than flushing them down the toilet.

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