Should the State legislate for embryonic stem cell research? The Irish Times 12th May 2008
Embryonic stem cell research is both scientifically unnecessary and morally untenable, writes Ruth Cullen.
STEM CELL science is a good news story. Since scientists began discovering more and more about how cells develop and grow, and how they can be used to cure different illnesses, more than 70 new medical advances have been made across a range of diseases, including different cancers, heart diseases, Parkinson's disease, liver conditions, stroke, spinal cord damage etc.
However, the cures derived in this manner were developed using umbilical cord blood, and adult, rather than embryonic, stem cells. The controversy surrounding stem cell research has centred on the latter, since it involves the killing of human embryos.
Those clamouring for embryonic research, including the Irish Council for Bioethics (ICB), say that research on human embryos is needed because adult stem cells are not pluripotent. For this reason, it is claimed, they don't have anything like the research potential that embryonic stem cells have.
There are a number of scientific rejoinders to this point. But, more importantly, there is a vital moral objection: human embryos, however generated, are human beings. This is not merely a philosophical contention. It is, as Dr William Reville recently pointed out in this newspaper, a scientific fact. In other words, rather than simply being a random collection of cells, the human embryo is one of us.
Indeed, the ICB seems to go some way towards acknowledging this. In its recent report recommending that embryos be killed for research purposes, it says the human embryo is possessed of significant moral worth. This acknowledgment of the moral significance of the human embryo is welcome. It is just a pity that the council didn't see fit to follow the logic of this assessment – by recognising the right to life of the embryo.
Instead, the council decided that, although a member of the human family, the human embryo was an expendable member. This is a dangerous path for scientists to tread. Delegating the power of life and death to any sector of society is a step too far, a lesson we should have learned the hard way in the last century.
If designating an entire class of human beings as disposable is the price for scientific and medical progress, then it is a price not worth paying. But, as it happens, that isn't a trade we need to make in this case. Last year, researchers in Japan and the US discovered that they could generate pluripotent stem cells without the need to destroy human embryos.
These stem cells, known as reprogrammed cells, can be generated from adult skin cells. A range of scientists believe that this breakthrough will mark a huge sea change in stem cell science.
Dr James Thomson, who led the US team behind the reprogramming breakthrough, says this new discovery will make the debate about the ethics of embryonic research "a funny historical footnote". Dr Robert Lanza, another expert in the field, said it marked "a new era for stem cells" and was "the biological equivalent of the Wright brothers' first airplane". Quite apart from the ethical advance achieved by this cutting edge science, reprogrammed cells or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have a number of scientific and practical advantages over embryonic stem cells. iPSCs allow scientists to create patient-specific stem cell lines for research on human diseases.
Many scientists say that, practically speaking, iPSCs will be easier to generate than stem cells from human embryos. Also, using iPSCs does not involve human embryos or human eggs and so obtaining them doesn't require the consent of a third party.
To date, we have only conducted a shadow debate on this issue. The Government-appointed Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction (CAHR) and the IBC conducted public consultations, which demonstrated the depth of public unease on the subject. In 2007, the Pro-Life Campaign commissioned Millward Brown IMS to conduct polling research on the issue. Seventy-four per cent of those who expressed an opinion agreed the Dáil should legislate to protect the human embryo.
For too long, the Government has allowed bodies such as CAHR and ICB to make the policy running on this issue. The composition of CAHR, which also recommended legalising embryonic research, showed how predetermined the outcome was. The commission voted in favour of such research by 24 to one, indicating total disregard for the profound misgivings felt by large numbers of Irish citizens on the issue.
Instead of legislating to make destructive embryo research legal in Ireland, the Government must intervene to redress the glaring imbalance to date in the consultation process. It is long past time for an open, honest and fair debate on these crucial and sensitive matters. Ireland can be a leader in world class, cutting edge and ethically sound stem cell research. We can strive for a win-win solution provided we abide by one simple principle: do no harm to other human beings.
Dr Ruth Cullen is a spokeswoman for the Pro-Life Campaign (c) The Irish Times