What About Stem Cells?

An Issue Absent from the 2008 Presidential Debates


Published: December 13, 2007

Questions of science should not be answered with religious evidence. And questions of religion should not be answered with scientific evidence. Science and religion deal with two completely different realms of thought. However, for practical purposes, they frequently overlap, as was the case with the stem cell debate. Now, a discovery in recent months has made the stem cell debate inconsequential.

Research teams in Wisconsin and Japan have discovered that skin cells can be conditioned to mimic embryonic stem cells. Because stem cells are “blank” cells which can be programmed to develop into any specific type of cell existing in the body, they yield the possibility of treating various types of illnesses which currently have no found cures. In the past, scientists have been successful in creating what are essentially embryonic stem cells from mouse skin cells. This same process can be repeated in humans so that a person’s skin cells can be converted into stem cells without destroying human embryos.

Had it not been for this discovery, scientists would have had to continue collecting human egg cells from female donors and retrieving the stem cells from the embryo, thereby destroying it. This method caused a great deal of debate and was denounced by pro-life supporters and the Bush Administration. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Americans were in support of stem cell research, despite its destruction of human embryos. In 2001, President Bush significantly reduced the number of human embryos available to scientists, by only allowing federal researchers to use the stem cell lines already in existence. President Bush later vetoed bills which sought to ease those restrictions. For the past six years, the president has maintained that scientists would find a method of harvesting stem cells that did not require human egg cells.

Ironically, President Bush was correct, and both supporters and opponents of stem cell research regard this discovery as a success. The Bush Administration is now congratulating itself for holding its “moral ground” and thus forcing researchers to find alternative methods. Morgan Moriera, an FCLC ’10 natural science major, says “Although this is a great discovery, those who are congratulating themselves have forgotten that President Bush’s restrictions created a six year delay. How much further would we be if scientists could pursue their research without the interference of politicians?”

Critics of the Bush Administration have been quick to point out that this new method would not have been possible without the initial embryo experiments. Furthermore, this alternative method still requires much work and is not yet fail-safe.

Unfortunately, the new findings will bolster the arguments of those who actively try to eliminate or delay potentially helpful research just because it happens to conflict with their personal moral convictions. Although this discovery has obliterated the stem cell debate, it will further complicate future matters in which science and religion clash. When the next controversial treatment arises, how long must we wait until an alternative method is discovered? And in the meantime, how many lives will be lost?