06/17/04 — Stem cells -- The potential is awesome, but we shouldn’t rush in

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Stem cells -- The potential is awesome, but we shouldn’t rush in

This country faces few questions as difficult or as misunderstood as the one that is being raised by Nancy Reagan — stem cell research.

Before he died June 5, former President Ronald Reagan’s mind was ravaged for several years by Alzheimer’s disease, one of the diseases that stem cell therapy might someday help relieve.

Mrs. Reagan has been promoting stem cell research for some time. Discussion of it has intensified since her husband’s death.

Some politicians and commentators have said that President Bush opposes stem cell research. That is untrue. What Bush opposes, and has prevented, is taxpayer-funded embryonic stem cell research, except on already-existing lines of the cells.

There is no prohibition against government funding of research on adult stem cells, or stem cells taken from umbilical cords or placentas.

Adult stem cell therapy is in clinical trials and has shown progress. Stem cells from an adult spleen have cured diabetes in mice in a laboratory in Massachusetts. Stem cells from adult bone marrow have been used to treat heart ailments in Europe and in Brazil.

Research on stem cells from embryos has not yet produced such results, although scientists hold great hope for them.

What makes embryonic research ethically difficult is that the source of the cells could be considered to be human life — embryos created by matching sperms and eggs. Taking the stem cells destroys this life, and a decision to do that is a decision of grave magnitude. It should be undertaken only after exhaustive study and meditation, if at all.

President Bush reiterated last weekend that the federal government should not be involved in life-taking, and his decision is a good one.

As Bush pointed out, however, about 60 lines of embryonic stem cells already exist, having been produced privately, and they can extend themselves perpetually to provide stem cells for research. The life that was sacrificed to get them cannot be brought back, so there is no reason not to use them for research. Bush favors that.

Once scientists make their breakthroughs, stem cells may be used to actually regenerate diseased human tissue. The benefits for the health of future generations are almost unimaginable.

Not surprisingly, the issue has become politicized. Bush’s presumed opponent in the November election, John Kerry, has joined with 60 other U.S. senators in urging the president to allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research now.

But Bush should not be rushed. There is peril as well as potential in stem cell research. The more we know about stem cells, the closer we will be to cloning human beings, and the more likely some scientists might be to sacrifice life that is more developed than test-tube embyros.
We are walking on a slippery slope, and we must walk slowly, deliberately and prayerfully.

Published in Editorials on June 17, 2004 1:56 PM