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Physician: Place a boundary at embryonic stem cell research

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Christians must draw clear lines in the stem cell research debate, an expert told state convention staffers at a conference sponsored by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville, Tenn.

“God draws lines; He sets boundaries,” said Joy Riley of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics and Culture. “Human beings created in the image of God draw lines too, though not as well or as cleanly as He.”

Riley, who is board-certified in internal medicine and has experience in emergency medicine and geriatrics, serves on the ethics committees of two Nashville-area hospitals. Speaking at the Nov. 28-29 ERLC conference, she gave an overview of ethical standards regarding stem cell research as well as an appraisal of the political situation surrounding the issue in the United States.

As early as 1984, the chief author of a report commissioned by the British government argued that, as Riley described it, “a collection of four or sixteen cells is so different from a full human being … that it might quite legitimately be treated differently. Specifically, [the report] argued that, unlike a full human being, it might legitimately be used as a means to an end that was good for other humans both now and in the future.”

The British report allowed for research on human embryos up to day 14 after fertilization and the U.S. government has adopted the same standards, Riley said.

The ethical issues became even more clouded when two different teams of scientists began attempting to harvest stem cells from embryos and aborted fetuses, Riley said. Stem cells, which can divide indefinitely, are the master cells from which all 210 types of tissue in the body are derived.

In order to harvest the stem cells, the embryo must be destroyed, Riley said. From stem cells, scientists have developed a method called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) in which the egg reprograms the nucleus to think that it is a new embryo.

SCNT, Riley noted, is cloning.

“Society has drawn a line between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning,” Riley said. “One could not honestly say that SCNT is therapeutic for the embryo. Currently, there are no therapies available with embryonic stem cells, so ‘therapeutic cloning’ is a misnomer from beginning to end.”

Riley recounted that voters in New Jersey, Missouri and California approved initiatives that allow for the destruction of embryos and provide legal protection and funding for scientific research that has yielded no hard evidence of providing cures to diseases.

New Jersey passed a “heinous” law in 2004 which was portrayed as an anti-cloning law, Riley noted.

“Reading between the lines, if you don’t have a newborn stage, you have not committed a felony,” she said. “So, you can clone, implant and gestate, but if the baby is born alive, you are in trouble in New Jersey.”

Riley reviewed the efforts of a Missouri biotechnology executive whose organization, the Stowers Institute, supplied $29 million of the $30.5 million used for ads to promote Amendment 2 on the Missouri ballot in November permitting SCNT. Amendment 2 also drew the support of actor Michael J. Fox and narrowly was approved by voters. Riley said the wording of the law in Missouri is a “variation on a theme” begun in New Jersey, in which SCNT is legal but the live birth of a cloned human is not.

In California, Proposition 71 was approved by 59 percent of the voters in 2004 authorizing $3 billion in state funding for a Center for Regenerative Medicine, with a 29-member board that included patient advocates, public officials and scientists, Riley said. She said reports on the progress of the center have revealed tensions because of high hopes for early success.

“Who do you think had those [hopes]? If you guess they were the patient advocates and public officials, you’d be right,” she said. “The scientists found many basic problems with human embryonic stem cells still to be solved.

“Read this as a sign that no therapeutic use of these cells is likely for years,” she said.

Riley said the entire debate in California is all about the search for federal tax dollars because no state can match the funding that could be offered by the National Institutes of Health.

“This is a race for dollars,” she said. “When the gloves come off, the hands are extended for alms for research.”

Riley said Christians who are concerned about cloning issues must be careful to cut through legal jargon before making decisions about which ballot initiatives to support.

“In the language of the law, if you can’t get what you want by being truthful, then you hide [it] — and the definitions are the primary place to hide things,” Riley said.

She said the concern to limit live births of clones in all three states was driven by the societal line between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. She added that media outlets repeatedly have stressed that reproductive cloning, in which a near-exact replica of a person’s genome is produced in another person, is not on the horizon, though she noted, “There are a few persons and at least one group that are interested in cloning human beings.”

Riley said the debate surrounding stem cell research is not a simple one, but one that Christians ignore at their own peril.

“These are issues that are not necessarily black and white, so you will need to look at the gray areas”, Riley said. “Love others, even those who disagree with you, because we are all made in the image of God, if for no other reason.”

(Note: Experiments using non-embryonic stem cells, found in such sources as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and adult bone marrow, do not harm donors and have provided treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Those include spinal cord injuries, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, sickle cell anemia and multiple sclerosis.)

Each year, the ERLC hosts state convention staffers and others whose responsibility includes ethical and moral issues. The state ethics leaders’ conference, Nov. 28-29 in Nashville, also featured reports from ERLC President Richard Land, ERLC Vice President for Public Policy Barrett Duke, and addresses by Phil and Vicki Burress of Citizens for Community Values and Riley.

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  • Samuel Smith