August 20, 2001 12:00 PM

Rarely has a scientific issue touched off such an emotional and divisive ethical debate as the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research. Supporters argue that the experimentation, in which scientists inevitably destroy human embryos, may lead to cures for some of mankind’s most devastating diseases. But opponents, including Pope John Paul II, counter that such advances come at too high a price. They contend that each embryo represents a potential human being and that eradicating an embryo is a violation of the sanctity of life. “Should an embryo have the same rights and regard as a live-born child? That is where the debate is focused,” says R. Alta Charo, professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin and member of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to the President. With President Bush still pondering whether to federally fund embryonic stem cell research ($256 million was spent last year, none on human embryonic cells), Charo, 43, spoke from her home in Madison, Wis., to medical correspondent Giovanna Breu about the issue.

What is an embryonic stem cell?

It is a cell that can develop into virtually any part of the body, whether it is a heart muscle, liver or skin tissue. It could never, in itself, develop into a fetus.

Where do stem cells come from?

After a human egg is fertilized, it begins to divide into two, then four, then eight cells. Within a few days you have a small, hollow ball of cells called a blastocyst. The stem cells, which are on the inside, are only retrievable in the first few days. But when you retrieve them, it makes it impossible for the rest of the ball to become a fetus.

What are the potential benefits of researching these cells?

They could help regrow heart muscle lost after a heart attack. They could regrow brain tissues that could be an answer to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease. They could be used as therapy for burns or to regenerate skin and would help in developing new drugs.

Where do researchers get the cells?

The most common source would be a few of the many thousands of leftover frozen embryos in storage at fertility clinics. They were created by couples who intended to use them to have a baby through in vitro fertilization but then decided not to. They can leave them frozen, donate them to somebody who wants to have a child and can’t, or destroy them—either in a way that yields stem cells to science or in a way that does not.

What objections have been raised to taking these stem cells?

There is the belief that destroying an embryo or blastocyst three or four days old is an immoral act that should not benefit science. We accept the idea that starting from birth, all human beings have the same fundamental rights. The issue is: Does this right apply to humans that have not been born?

How do people answer that question?

Some say the right is triggered from the moment the soul enters the body. Different religions place that moment at different stages in development. Others base their response on whether the entity has the potential of becoming a live-born baby. Others focus on what the entity is at the moment: Can it perceive pain or perceive its environment? Finally there is another group that says if we all agree that embryos are going to be members of our moral community, then they are.

What would happen to the leftover embryos if they were not used for medical research?

They would be discarded or left frozen in perpetuity. The medical consensus is that the embryos would be unsafe for making babies after 5 or 10 years.

Are antiabortionists against using embryonic stem cells?

There’s a split in the antiabortion community. Several U.S. senators, including Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond, identify themselves as antiabortion but support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Within the community of those who support abortion rights there is virtually no division.

Are there other kinds of stem cells?

There are some closely related stem cells that can be obtained from fetal tissue after an abortion. But the only kind of stem cells currently used in medicine are adult stem cells, which are found in the bodies of both adults and children. They are hard to obtain and, unlike embryonic stem cells, cannot reliably transform into other types of cells.

Can they be used in medicine?

Yes, we use adult cells in bone-marrow transplants, for example. The disadvantage of adult stem cell transplantation is that the recipient needs to take very powerful anti-rejection drugs.

What gives the federal government the right to control this research?

The federal government has the power to put conditions on the use of federal money. My father used to say when I was growing up, “If you are going to live in my house, you are going to live my way.”

If federal funds are blocked, does the research stop?

It will proceed more slowly because there won’t be as much money.

How will the debate be resolved?

Everybody has to decide whether regard for early developing forms of human life outweighs in their hearts their regard for already developed human life that might benefit from this research, including their parents, their siblings, their children—even themselves.

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