Limits of Breakthroughs

Why the Stem Cell Battle Isn't Over

Advocates of embryo-destructive stem cell research may never be satisfied.

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Chuck  Colson

I’ve got good news for you and bad news. First, the good news: Scientists, led by Derrick J. Rossi of the Children's Hospital in Boston, have announced that they have developed a safe and highly effective alternative to embryonic stem cell research. It’s one that could potentially produce treatments and cures for everything from Alzheimer’s to spinal-cord injuries.

Researchers love embryonic stem cells because they can easily differentiate into many cell types, what’s called pluripotency. People like me concerned about protecting human dignity object to embryonic stem cell research, because it requires the destruction of innocent human life. But the new technique, using molecules known as “messenger RNA,” reprograms ordinary skin cells into pluripotent cells that are virtually identical to embryonic stem cells.

The best news is that researchers don’t have to sacrifice human life in order to obtain these new mRNA cells. Reporting on the breakthrough, the Washington Post said it “could mark a pivotal moment in the long, contentious history of embryonic stem cell research.”

Now for the bad news: Despite the breakthrough, the war over embryonic stem cell research is far from over. Dr. Rossi, lead researcher, said embryo-based research should continue—if for no other reason so that alternatives to it can be “validated.”

This stubbornness makes no sense, until you realize that it is part of a larger pattern. For the last 50 years, scientists have developed more than 70 treatments and cures using morally uncontroversial adult stems cells, such as skin cells, including for conditions such as nerve cell damage and multiple sclerosis. Yet for years, researchers said they needed to have access to pluripotent embryonic stem cells, which so far have produced exactly zero cures.

Then a few years ago other scientists developed what are called induced pluripotent stem cells, which appear identical to embryo-based cells—again, without the killing. But researchers, citing potential but not actual risks of the induced pluripotent research, insisted that embryonic stem cells are still needed.

Now, in the face of new, ground-breaking research that addresses even these purely hypothetical concerns, scientists’ first impulse is to say they still need life-killing embryonic stem cell research. Over the decades, every scientific objection to discontinuing this research has been answered, and yet they still want the right to dispose of human life. Why?

Could it be that this argument isn’t ultimately about science, which involves carefully looking at the evidence? The evidence is clear, and is becoming ever more clear by the day. It’s really about worldview, and the secular worldview so prevalent among scientists today says that human beings are simply clumps of raw material to be exploited for the greater good. Many scientists have forgotten the Christian worldview which gave rise to science in the first place, and which sees every human life as worth protecting because we are made in God’s image.

That’s why we will never win this argument simply offering pragmatic responses. Such arguments have their place, of course, but we have to help people see the moral implications of their worldview.

And that means showing them why killing innocent human life is always wrong, whatever the latest scientific breakthrough says.

Further Reading and Information
Scientists Overcome Hurdles to Stem Cell Alternatives
Rob Stein | The Washington Post | September 30th, 2010