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Minneapolis, Minn. — Embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of human embryos.And for that reason, the research draws a stiff line between its supporters and detractors, both of whom showed up for the university's discussion of the issue.
Lead researcher Catherine Verfaillie explained to an audience of about 150 people, that stem cells are so promising because they don't yet represent any specific type of body tissue. Scientists can coax them to become any number of different cells that can be used to understand and treat a variety of diseases.
"Blood diseases and cancers, a number of genetic diseases and all the degenerative diseases we have with aging; whether it's stroke, Parkinson's, heart disease, diabetes, liver or lung disease, to just name a few," she said.
Those who oppose scientific use of embryonic stem cells say despite future promises, such research sits on shaky moral ground.
Steven Calvin, co-chair of the university's Program in Human Rights in Medicine and a panelist at the forum, said he's troubled by the university's decision to go ahead with the research.
"The moral status of the human embryo is central, but it's not the only question. An equally compelling argument against proceeding with this research is the very real danger that such use of early human life will lead to a commoditization of life. To treat early human life as a natural resource will set a terrible precedent and I believe will be morally hazardous," Calvin said.
I don't think the fact that these embryos are left over or unwanted gives us the right to kill them.
Calvin believes the public does not support the destruction of human embryos for research. He said though the university may have good intentions, if it proceeds, it will face a public relations problem which will further delay progress toward treatment for chronic and debilitating diseases.
The university says embryonic stem cell research is legal, and they have in place the checks and balances necessary to proceed in an ethical manner, including an internal stem cell ethics advisory board.
Federal law currently prohibits public agencies to spend money on any embryonic stem cell lines except for a few dozen already in circulation. University officials say they will use only private money to fund the research.
And, as U of M Center for Bioethics director Jeffrey Kahn explained, university scientists will only use embryos willingly discarded from the in-vitro fertilization process. He asked people to think less about whether embryos are persons or not, and more about the intention in which the embryos were made.
"The intention, I think, matters in their creation, and their desire for donation for research or other purposes is something we ought to honor on the part of individuals.
That argument didn't wash with audience member Frank Preston. The retired physician insists an embryo is a fully complete human being.
"And I don't think the fact that these embryos are left over or unwanted gives us the right to kill them," he said.
Forum attendee Jackie Christensen says she brings a different perspective to the debate. She has Parkinson's disease and looks to embryonic stem cell research as a possible cure.
"I think that's what needs to get out. What the real lives the real people who are around right now, what we're experiencing. Not the hypothetical 'babies or not' question," she said.
University of Minnesota officials say they're still a few years away from their first embryonic stem cell research milestone. There are still many more hurdles to clear in the science, ethics, and politics of the research.