Stem Cell War Victory

10-21-2012Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

Well you could've knocked me over with a well, stem cell, an induced pluripotent stem cell to be exact. This year's Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Japanese scientist Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who developed the induced pluripotent stem cell (IPSC) procedure by which stem cells can be developed without destroying an embryo. Dr. Yamanaka discovered a way to reprogram normal skin cells so that they become like an embryonic stem cell or pluripotent, that is a cell that can differentiate into almost any body part.

What is more interesting is that Dr. Yamanaka decided to pursue this research after looking at embryo destructive research and having the realization that the embryos that were being destroyed could have been his daughters. He put it this way: "When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters". When he looked through the microscope he saw not just a cell but also the beginning of a human life. "If human embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough," he said. "I thought long and hard about whether I would do it." He then realized how ethically troubling embryo destructive research was and sought to find a way to continue this research in an ethical way. His insight and ethical qualms changed the course of stem cell research and the terms of the great Stem Cell Debate.

This demonstrates that scientists can find ways to conduct ethical research that respects the principle that human life should not be used for instrumental purposes. And it is also a moment of gratitude for all those who held the line despite being vilified and cast as people who do not care about human suffering.

There are many lessons to be learned from the "stem cell wars" (and I am sure they are not quite over). What is the role of government and public policy when it comes to research? How should morality shape public policy? How politics distorts science, how money corrupts scientist and research institutions and how ethics (and what kind of ethics) should guide scientific research.

We should also remember that the Church's opposition to Embryo destructive research was not necessarily a specifically religious teaching. It was based on a reasonable interpretation of the biological facts: that human life begins at conception. Ethics then demands that since this is a form of human life it has intrinsic moral worth, then it should be protected as it has certain rights and no matter how noble the goal is, human life should not be destroyed for our own purposes. In other words, just as with abortion, we are not trying to "impose" our religious teaching on society but rather uphold traditional Western ethics and universal values that help keep us a just and humane society.

You may recall that in the last presidential election this issue was manipulated for political purposes as we had the "war on science" (this election's cri de guerre is the "war on women"). Lots of false hope was waved before suffering people and their families as they were told Bush and the Republicans were blocking cures to their diseases and if you vote for the Democratic ticket you will be voting to save lives. And true to form President Obama within the first few weeks of his Inauguration signed an executive order lifting the limits on embryo destructive research (limits not a ban ordered by the "medieval" Bush policy), giving the lion's share of funding to it and canceling funding to non-embryo destructive stem cell research. Well four years later where are the promised cures and therapies? Even the "celebrity victim" Michael J. Fox who became the poster child for ESCR now admits that cures will come from other sources. This episode was rather scurrilous as it used emotional manipulation of sick people to garner votes.

The cures and therapies are here but they are from non-embryonic stem cell research. Paralysis, MS, heart disease, diabetes and rebuilding bodily organs are among the afflictions that adult stem cells are helping to treat. The only US human clinical trial using embryonic stem cells crashed and burned. While there is one clinic trial in the UK using ESC's regarding degenerative eye disease, the clinical trials using adult and induced pluripotent stem cells are in the thousands.

We owe a debt of thanks to Dr. Yamanaka for helping science find an ethical way to proceed with stem cell research. In this great stem cell debate both sides agree that the alleviation of human suffering is the goal. The disagreement lies in how best to accomplish that. This is where public policy debates become important and a discussion on ethics is part and parcel of the democratic process and not an assault on science. That is why it is important that faithful citizens lend their moral voice to help shape public policy that respects the demands of human dignity and keep us free from the potential tyranny of technology and ideologically infected science.


Fr. John Bonavitacola

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