In a major policy speech last week, President Bush said he would allow federal funding for research on a limited number of embryonic stem cells.
Embryonic stem cell research is controversial in the United States. Some wish to pursue it, believing it will lead in the future to the prevention or cure of many diseases. Others say it is immoral to use or destroy human embryos for medical or any other purpose. There are several intermediate positions, especially among religious groups. At issue in this ethical and religious debate is the proper fate of stem cells that have formed within human embryos mere days after conception. A little science here: Stem cells have the potential to form into all kinds of human tissues and organs. If they can be harvested and reproduced, it is possible that these cells can prevent or cure many diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and spinal injuries on the cellular level. To date, about sixty strains, called "lines," of embryonic stem cells have been harvested and developed. Most of these have come from embryos in fertility clinics during so-called "in vitro" fertilization procedures. During those procedures, as many as fifteen of a prospective mother's eggs are fertilized outside her womb, resulting in the formation of several embryos.
Only one or two of those embryos will be implanted in her womb to develop into a baby and brought to term. The rest are generally discarded. Embryonic stem cell researchers wish to take the stem cells from the unused embryos for future research. Because it destroys the embryos, this is an ethically controversial act, which Orthodox rabbi and law professor Yitzhak Breitowitz nevertheless believes is ethically permissible.
"If an embryo is created through a fertility process because of in vitro fertilization, [and] is in the process of being discarded or allowed to thaw, Jewish law would have no hesitation saying that instead of throwing something away, it should be used for a positive beneficial purpose," said Mr. Breitowitz. "So number one, it's going to be destroyed anyway. And number two, the laws against abortion - although they are very strict, and traditional Judaism does not support abortion on demand - do not kick in until an embryo has become implanted within a uterus. It does not apply to frozen embryos or embryos in a petri dish.
"Where I think we have a problem is in the deliberate creation of embryos for the harvesting of stem cells," Mr. Breitowitz went on to say. "We believe that the unification of egg and sperm should take place only for the purpose of giving rise to human life. If, after the fact, it's not going to be used for that, that is a separate story. But we wouldn't believe in the deliberate creation of life in order to destroy it."
Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, Professor of Islamic Jurisprudence and Theology at the University of Virginia, says traditional Muslims have arrived at similar positions regarding embryonic research, via a different road. "In the Sunni law, which is the majority of the Muslims, although the biological entity is regarded as important, the actual person-hood does not begin until after the first one hundred and twenty days," he explained.
This is based on the tradition that "ensoulment" takes place after a 120 days… At that point, the spirit enters the fetus….
This view runs completely counter to the position of the Catholic Church, a view that is shared by Carrie Gordon Earll, a bio-ethicist with 'Focus on the Family,' an international Christian evangelical organization. Ms. Earll insists that human life begins the moment sperm meets egg.
"The embryo is just a stage of life, just like we're adults and I have two teenagers," she said. "And the embryo is a sacred human life that should be protected. And it really doesn't matter how that life came to be whether it was through in vitro fertilization technology or the traditional act of sexual intercourse." "It really comes down to the fundamental question of life," continued Ms. Earll. "Either life is sacred from the moment of conception when we know human life begins… or it's not. At what point are you going to draw a line on life's spectrum and say 'some are okay to kill even for cures - and some are protected?' Biologically, there is no difference between them and us. We all have the same chromosomal makeup and if you allow them to receive nourishment and to grow, they're gonna grow into a fetus and a baby and an infant and on through the stages of life."
Ms. Earll believes that the ethical debate over what to do with discarded embryos might have been avoided if in vitro fertilization technology had been better regulated at the beginning. "Couples, in our opinion, have been encouraged to fertilize as many embryos as possible, knowing that they wouldn't be able to implant them all. And that's irresponsible creation of life," she said. "That doesn't remove the ethical and moral obligation that we have to that innocent human life. No human being whether in an embryonic stage or any other stage of life should be subject to experimentation, regardless of whether or not someone thinks they are a 'quality' embryo! That goes back to at what point would a disabled person still have a right to life if we determine that that is not a quality adult?"
President Bush is taking a middle path by allowing federal funding to proceed only on those stem cell cultures that have been established so far. Meanwhile, the debate continues.