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Panelists: Don’t believe embryonic stem cell research hype

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Convinced that human embryonic stem cell research has made fantastic forays into curing diseases like Alzheimer’s?

Think again, whether you’re listening to pro-abortion advocates, bottom line-driven biotech companies or individuals desperate for a cure, according to a panel of experts during a forum on embryonic stem cell research at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

The forum was sponsored by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s Research Institute, which advises and assists the ERLC in equipping Southern Baptists and others in the areas of ethics, morality and public policy.

There was a time in American history when trafficking in human lives made some people quite wealthy. An ugly, new slave trade looms on the horizon that will allow biotech companies to reap great wealth if human embryo research is ever legalized, said Richard Land, ERLC president.

It’s all about money, Land said. “Biotech companies want to be able to commodify human life. They want to clone human beings and then murder them within two weeks of gestation to harvest their stem cells. This is nothing more than biotech child sacrifice. We haven’t done that in our country since the end of slavery.

“We will be paying women to harvest their eggs and cloning human beings to harvest their fetal tissue. This is the commodification of human life. It degrades us all, and it is a dangerous step to take,” Land said.

The legalization of human embryonic stem cell research would establish — in law — classes of human life, said Daniel Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

“Such policy would assert there is a class of human life, in embryonic form, that we don’t have to treat at the same level, that is not as valuable as other human life, and that we can choose to keep or sacrifice,” he said. “It is true that the last time we did that we had a problem with slavery.”

The “greatest happiness principle” says the sacrifice of a few human beings would be worth the price if it benefited the greatest number of people, said Steve Lemke, provost and dean of the graduate faculty at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “Putting a price on a human life is a dangerous thing,” he said.

But in the end, Lemke continued, it will be the “rich who will benefit” from a legalization of embryonic stem cell research. “Embryonic stem cell therapy,” he said, “will be a luxury only the rich will be able to afford.”

Panelist C. Ben Mitchell said the legalization of embryonic stem cell research would put America’s poorest women under pressure to sell their eggs to “stem cell brokers.”

“The potential for exploitation alone should be enough to stop embryonic cloning research,” said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at the Chicago-area Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells in embryos and adults alike that have the ability to give rise to the specialized cell types that make up an organism. The issue of embryonic stem cell research made its way into this year’s presidential campaign, most notably when the son of former President Ronald Reagan made headlines during the Democrats’ national convention in Boston.

“Ron Reagan’s emotional plea during the Democratic National Convention to allow embryonic stem cell research to help Alzheimer’s patients like his father, the former president, was built on insufficient, inadequate, incorrect and immoral information,” said Jerry Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville.

“If each child that is conceived is a person, than each harvest is an immoral act of murder,” Sutton said, expressing concern that the debate over embryonic stem cell research is “simply an attempt to further justify the unjustifiable abortion industry.”

“We must focus on reality and get past the wild and exaggerated claims of embryonic stem cell research,” Heimbach insisted.

While scientists have been working with stem cells for decades, it was only in the past six years when it was discovered how to isolate and grow embryonic stem cells that interest skyrocketed, explained Barrett Duke, ERLC vice president for public policy.

“But embryos are not the only source of stem cells,” Duke said, noting that stem cells occur naturally throughout the body. “Scientists have been very effective at isolating and collecting them for regenerative and reparative therapies in humans,” he continued, noting also that adult stem cells are “much more controllable than embryonic stem cells.”

Once stem cells were isolated in the late 1990s, Mitchell said researchers had the opportunity to learn more about these “so-called precursor cells” to the other cells in the human body. “These cells have not yet been determined to create another and specific cell type. These are the primordial cells or the master cells of the body,” he explained.

“It is our hope that through stem cell research we might be able to direct their differentiation, to create the kinds of tissues that we want. The hope is that by using stem cells we might be able to do things like repairing neural cells, heart cells or pancreatic islet cells for the treatment of diabetes,” Mitchell said, while admitting the “technology for differentiating stem cells is still in the very primitive stages.”

“Yet the claims for the superiority of embryonic stem cells over other types of stem cells has been tremendously overblown,” Mitchell said, describing the claims as “unsubstantiated.”

“There are no clinical treatments using embryonic stem cells in humans. There are few successes in animal studies, and in many cases the animal studies have produced horrendous results,” he continued, saying 98 percent of the cases in mammals resulted in “lethal deformities.”

There is still a problem in directing stem cells to create the kind of tissues researchers want, Mitchell said. Attempts to direct stem cells to become specific cells often leads to the creation of tumors, he said.

Researchers lack the “scientific sophistication” to direct the cells to do exactly what we want them to do at this time, he said. “Yet we are seeing much success in some areas,” he continued.

While no diseases have been successfully treated by embryonic stem cells, at least 45 diseases have been treated by adult stem cell therapy, Mitchell said. Adult stem cells are a “morally acceptable source,” he added, referencing the website www.stemcellresearch.org.

Researchers have used adult cells from the spleen to regenerate insulin-producing cells and cure diabetes in mice. Neural stem cells have been used for structural brain repair. Clinical trials are underway in the United States for the treatment of heart disease using stem cells from adult bone marrow. And scientists have discovered bone marrow stem cells, when exposed to damaged liver tissue, can quickly convert into healthy liver cells, according to new research from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

Despite the fact that embryonic stem cell research has so far proven relatively fruitless in its search for medical breakthroughs, Mitchell said opponents of the research shouldn’t simply rely on that defense: “We have to have a moral argument in case the science turns around and determines more can be done with embryonic stem cells. The destruction of human embryos is still morally reprehensible.”

Embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of developing embryos, Mitchell said, and it is nothing less than cannibalism of human embryos for their parts. “To dissect members of our species for co-called therapeutic or experimental purposes is a form of barbarism that we ought to avoid,” he insisted.

Public opinion will follow any legalization of embryonic stem cell research, Heimbach said.

“For the vast majority of people in the United States, they assume what is legal is moral,” said Heimbach, describing what is called the “pedagogical effect of the law.” The law has an influence on how people view an activity, he said, underscoring why public approval of embryonic research might well follow the adoption of public policy that allows embryonic stem cell research.

“We run the risk of legitimizing the perverse incentives,” Heimbach said, when public policy allows harvesting of human stem cells from embryos for experimentation. He noted the motive may be good — to heal disease — but he warned once such policy is endorsed, there will be an “explosion of political pressure to allow more and more cases of killing innocent lives for other so-called good reasons.”

Heimbach said a public policy that allowed experimentation on embryos would establish in law the idea that participating in the conception of a human being is morally equivalent to creating human life.

This is a shift in status from being in a “stewardship trust” to an “ownership relationship,” he continued. This flawed reasoning would have a “tremendously perverse effect on how people treat human life.” God alone is Creator, he added.

“If you really own something, you can do with it what you want,” Heimbach said, including giving permission for it to be killed.

There is a danger that some would want to strike a compromise between those who want embryonic stem cell research to be completely legal and those who want to tightly control it, as is now the case, Heimbach said. This compromise view would permit experimentation only on existing embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures at fertility clinics.

There are some 400,000 “spare embryos left over” from in-vitro fertilization attempts in fertility clinics across the country, Mitchell had said, but they are insufficient in number and quality even if embryonic stem cell research was a moral activity.

Heimbach suggested the assumption would be: These embryos have been left to die; let’s put them to good use.

The broader assumption is that if others for whatever reason have decided that a certain group of humans are going to die anyway, we have moral permission to harm, kill or experiment on that human life, Heimbach continued.

If you accept that idea, he said, scientists would be justified to harvest the organs of prisoners on death row and do experiments on people with terminal illnesses because society would be getting a public benefit out of such work, Heimbach explained.

“That is exactly the line we will cross if public policy accepts a compromise that allows the use of leftover embryos,” he stated. “Crossing the line to allow experiments on embryonic stem cells that involves the taking of innocent human lives will corrupt American law and the moral tone of American life and culture in a very dangerous way.”

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  • Dwayne Hastings