Research Position Paper
First passed in 1996, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment prohibited any federal funding to research which destroyed human embryos. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment, as well as the Sherley v. Sebelious case which supported it, seems to be well hidden by a veil of ambiguity and legal jargon which stems from the moral dilemma facing the use of human embryos in research. President Obama’s proposal, which would move to overturn this amendment, thus allowing for the utilization of human embryos to conduct stem cell research was met with heavy criticism and viewed skeptically under the pretense that viable stem cell research can be conducted without the use of embryos.
Stem cells derived from human embryos are not only more easily accessible but also yield a higher potential for research capabilities. Embryonic stem cell research is currently the most reliable means in the field of regenerative medicine including many types of cancers, neurological diseases, spinal injuries as well as even regeneration of lost limbs. Many of the lawmakers have only noted the seeming gruesome nature of the field while overlooking the obvious benefits. Stem cells have been proven to have the ability to rejuvenate damaged tissue as well as create entirely new tissues. It is widely believed that these methods are also superior to conventional methods because they carry a far less mild “risk-benefit profile”.
Often the terms used to describe the process of embryonic stem cell research are confused with one another. This confusing terminology can be easily exploited by anti-abortion politicians and similar political groups in order to win favor with the public. It is necessary to distinguish the difference between a stem cell and an embryonic stem cell. The addition of a single word has some serious implications. Embryonic stem cells, as one might guess, are derived from a human embryo. However there is also some confusion surrounding the precise definition of “embryo” compared to a fertilized cell, also known as a zygote. A zygote is the single cell that forms the instant of fertilization commonly called conception. An embryo is formed from the process of cell division as the fertilized egg (zygote) matures. This is where the cells used in embryonic stem cell research are derived. In humans, the zygote forms an embryo thirteen days after fertilization (Campbell 1034). In short, an embryo is a multi-celled zygote. A third stage of development is of course the fetus which is the term used to call the maturing embryo after about ten weeks, this is the stage where human like features develop. As we can see a fertilized egg and an embryo are not the same, they are very similar but, in the thirteen days of maturation the zygote undergoes subtle changes that make the embryo so valuable in the field of regenerative medicine.
Now that the scientific definition of an embryo has been established, it is possible to examine the scientific differences between stem cells from an embryo and those harvested from other sources. There are many methods by which stem cells can be obtained including those derived from adult cells, prenatal cells (umbilical cord), and bioengineered cells (produced in a lab). The derivation of adult cells is accomplished through the removal of bone marrow or adipose (fat) tissues. Prenatal cells are taken from the umbilical cord blood cells or amniotic fluid. Bioengineered stem cells are created in a lab from somatic cells (almost all body cells) which undergo complex and arduous scientific techniques in the form of either cloning, or induced pluripotency. Cellular potency is the term used to describe the ability of a stem cell to differentiate into its surrounding cells. All of these methods require some form of alteration or procedure to yield usable stem cells, in the case of using adult cells it is often a very long and painful outpatient procedure. Embryonic stem (ES) cells differ in nature from all other cells by two crucial characteristics being their pluripotency and their ability to replicate indefinitely. (Zacharias 635) These two characteristics are what make ES cells the most beneficial option for preventing and reversing tissue loss among patients afflicted with degenerative illnesses.
In contrast to these other methods, embryonic stem cells are taken from the inner core of the embryo itself which requires little to no processing to obtain. Secondly, the stem cells taken from a human embryo are more pluripotent than other stem cells. This means that they are able to differentiate into different tissues faster and with greater accuracy. Lastly, and most importantly, embryonic stem cells have the capability to differentiate into all tissues in the human body with no replication limit, no other type of stem cell has this unique ability. Adult stem cells are only able to differentiate into a certain number of tissues depending on their origin and lab induced pluripotent cells still lack the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells. (Zacharias, David G. et al. pg 637-638)
The pluripotent nature of these cells translates into the ability of stem cells derived from embryos to differentiate into any of the more than 220 types of cells in the human body. And because these cells are able to replicate indefinitely, their potential to cure diseases is truly limitless. Based on previous research trials by Geron Corporation, a California-based biotech company, researchers have found that embryonic stem cells are able to repair myelin sheaths (of the spinal cord) and will most likely be able to restore some of a patients mobility. (Reinberg) In other words a paralyzed individual stands to regain some of his/her mobility back after undergoing embryonic stem cell therapy.
When compared to the other methods of stem cell therapy, the differences are enormous. For example, cells taken from bone marrow are only able to differentiate into other bone or cartilage cells. This means that they are utterly useless when trying to give a patient back his bowel function or mobility after a paralyzing automobile accident. These fixes can only be accomplished with the utilization of ES cells, and would lead to sensational gains in quality of life, as is apparent.
To put this into more understandable terms it is easiest to look at real world examples. Adult stem cells taken from either bone marrow or adipose tissue are only capable of differentiating into either bone/cartilage cells or adipose tissue respectively. Prenatal stem cells are often useful in several applications but again lack the range that embryonic cells offer. Finally bioengineered cells can offer an alternative to embryonic stem cells, albeit an inferior alternative. The field of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells is far more complex than that of embryonic stem (ES) cells, which leads to a loss of efficiency in the final product cell as well as a decreased functionality as compared to ES cells. It is most useful to use stem cells derived from an embryo because they are able to create any type of tissue found in the human body.
It is important to remember that the source of the stem cell affects its properties throughout the entire life of the cell. It is also important to remember that when this type of regenerative medicine is involved, often a human life is at stake. In other words, using an inferior type of stem cell can lead to death. Embryos are unique in that they contain the basis for each type of tissue in the human body, due to the fact that if they had been allowed to mature they would in fact eventually become a full human body. The importance of embryonic stem cell research as compared to other stem cell research is exemplified in a quote from a Mayo Clinic Proceedings article: “iPS researcher Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, ‘ES cells are needed to understand the basic mechanism of pluripotency and self-renewal. As such, it is out of the question to even suggest phasing them out. We will be lost without them.’” (Zacharias, David G. et al. pg 637)
The two main opponents of embryonic stem (ES) cell research that favor the current ban are political and moral in nature. The political view of the situation states that there should not be research conducted if it results in human tissues being destroyed. And the moral dilemma is that the embryo utilized is/could have been a human itself. These two opinions stem from the same basic principle which is that a human embryo can be viewed, in very specific circumstances, as a human or part of a human. These two views are very closely linked by this opinion, and therefore can be dealt with simultaneously in most cases.
The overwhelming issue that embryonic stem cells face morally and politically is that of defining exactly when a cluster of cells is called a human being. This issue is similar to that of the abortion issue which was highly debated just a few years ago. For example in almost all cases it is legal in the United States for a pregnant woman to receive a late term abortion, that is to terminate her pregnancy up to the 24th week of pregnancy, sometimes even longer. At this state of gestation limbs, eyes and organs are almost fully developed yet it is not deemed a human being and can be terminated (Campbell 1015). But the government has decided to ban any research which destroys an embryo only 13 days from fertilization. Morally defining an embryo is crucial because of the laws which initiated the ban. With almost no development, save for the production of a few membranes, an embryo should not be considered a human or living in any way.
Laws and regulations currently stand in this country that procedures involving ES cells are not allowed. A country founded by innovators that has been known to provide the best in so many other fields, such as NASA’s space program, superior defense programs and technology is quickly falling behind when it comes to saving and improving the lives of its citizens. Because religious principles have stood in the way, this nightmare has become a blinding reality in the faces of those who understand its true potential. United States programs have remained the best because of continued funding, for example in 2011 the Department of Defense was given $548.9 billion in funding, NASA alone received $6 billion all while the funding for embryonic stem cell research has remained steady at $0. (US budget 2011) Without the necessary funding the potency of embryonic stem cells will never be realized.
The cause of the current policies concerning ES cell research dates back to 1996 when the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was passed stating that no federal funding should be given to research in which any part of a human embryo was destroyed. After wading through the current state of muddlement concerning issues like this, it becomes clear that this amendment itself stemmed from the fact that most people holding political offices are of the opinion that a human embryo should be regarded as a living human being and therefore has rights protecting it. Being that the point of this essay is to establish a cause and effect rather than to establish why this point of view is incorrect, delving too deeply into the contradictory nature of this opinion is unnecessary. However, it is important to note that there is an obvious inconsistency among these same politicians when it comes to defining a life, such is the case in the current abortion laws.
The cause of these preventative laws has its basis in Christian ideals that have invaded political agendas and have swayed the decision making process. While ideals that are held by over three quarters of the United States population should not be disregarded all together, but rather should be used at discretion and weighed against what stands to be lost. In the case of ES cell laws, what stands to be lost is huge gains in quality of living, independence as well as lives themselves.
As stated before much of the aversion to the use of ES cells in regenerative medicine has been derived from the Dwickey-Wicker amendment in 1996 which prohibited the funding for research that destroyed any human tissue. While the concern for causing or incentivizing the destruction of a potential human life is obvious, the basis of this amendment is flawed. At first glance this amendment may seem irrefutable, but upon closer inspection the fallacy of the document is more easily perceptible. The fallacy lies within the notion that a nearly single celled tissue is human solely because of the fact that it was human derived. Other pseudo-moral laws that strive to define a human life differ in what is human and what is not.
While separation of church and state has been pushed for almost since the inhabitation of the United States, being first cited in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Dansbury Baptist Association, (UNECESSARY?) there seems to still be a mixing of Christian ideals within the current laws. While the Conference of Catholic Bishops has been open with their opinion that the destruction of any human embryo is grossly immoral , either by research or by abortion, the vast majority of states in America have late term abortion laws which allow second and even third trimester abortions. The discrepancy is immediately apparent in these two views. Now, certainly most would agree that a discrepancy between political and religious parties is acceptable. However, nearly all of the arguments for the current abortion laws were derived from a moral standpoint which is what makes this discrepancy interesting. The famous Roe v Wade Supreme Court case ruled that in order to be a human then the infant (for lack of a better term) must be “viable” or able to live outside of the mother’s womb without life support. This is certainly far different that the definition of life when it comes to embryonic stem cell research.
These discrepancies themselves do not point to a completely flawed system, but when abortion laws viewed in tandem with the current laws concerning research conducted with human embryos there is an undeniable misstep in logic. It seems that crucial terminology like defining what a life is should be the same across the board. Although it is true that certain words can take on different meanings when viewed under different light, as is the main argument for such laws as medicinal narcotics, illegal in some settings and legal and necessary in others, something as critical as defining human life should not change regardless of the scenario. The question that begs to be asked is why aborting an embryo is legal but using it in a lab to save lives is not. Both scenarios, at the same stage of development are viewed entirely differently. It is the opinion of many scientists, who know the true power of these types of cells, that they should be viewed as one in the same.
Another major concern of the opponents of this field of research is that using embryos for research may lead to incentivizing abortion for the purpose of research. It has been proposed that the donation of usable tissues would merit a payment of some source, which may lead to an increase in abortions for the exclusive purpose of a payment especially in poverty-stricken areas of the country. This, while a valid claim, has an all too simple solution being: do not offer payment. If a woman has already chosen to have an abortion and the donation of tissue could be used for research then a reduction or free-of-charge termination could be performed, which would give no incentive to have abortions for financial gain.
The intervention of religious and political organizations has led to a huge set back in the fields of regenerative and therapeutic medicine. Because current United States lawmakers have deemed the application of embryonic stem cells in medicine to be immoral, the field of regenerative medicine has suffered a setback of over two decades. Stem cell research and the use of stem cells in patients with degenerative diseases is nothing short of a miracle, however by banning funding for this particular type of stem cell research a short ceiling for potential healing is established
Many anti-abortion and religious groups also view the usage of previously aborted and cryogenically frozen embryos for research as wrong. Often times it is due to the fact that they view these practices themselves wrong and do not want these tissues used for any other purpose, even though they will likely be destroyed anyways. This view is flawed because knowing that these tissues hold the potential to save lives or greatly increase the quality of life of a person afflicted with an illness it seems morally wrong to allow to be destroyed without any benefit. It stands to reason that if the tissues are going to be destroyed regardless, it is almost immortal to let them go to waste, they might as well be used to help someone in need.
It is important to remember that this type of research deals with the utilization of human tissue often not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. To classify this conglomeration of cells as human is to say that soil should be considered a tree because it may one day give rise to one. There is no argument that it must be a daunting task to define when a fertilize egg becomes a human but it seems that in some instances it is apparent that it is not one. Just as there is no doubt when stating that a toddler is a human, there should be no doubt that an embryo of just a few cells is not a human. With a redefining of an embryo, the government could lift its ban on embryonic stem cell research and open the gates to discovering cures for deadly diseases.