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Summer 2004 | Volume 26, Number 7 | Features

Science and Beneficence

Cynthia Fitch, Ph.D.: In Response to Ted Peters

Stem cells are the focus of a storm of controversy — not because of what they might do for human health and disease treatment, but because of their source. It is to me a classic case of asking, “Does the end justify the means?”


Click here to read "What Are Stem Cells?  


Ted Peters, noted bioethicist and author, spoke about this dilemma while a guest on the Seattle Pacific University campus this past spring, and his lecture has now been adapted for Response. As a geneticist and a biology professor, my responses to Peters’ views and to the therapeutic cloning and stem cell controversy are shaped by the scientific advances being made, the integrity of the science of stem cells itself and, of course, the long-term benefits versus the human costs that this research brings. As a Christian, my responses are shaped by my understanding of God’s purposes in the world and our responsibilities as his people.

Peters indicates that the mainstream of the scientific community is against human reproductive cloning, and this is certainly a position I share. But therapeutic cloning, in my opinion, is a different matter and requires a somewhat different analysis.

Even though pluripotent embryonic stem cells seem like a long-awaited therapeutic solution, there are numerous technical challenges to their use, not to mention ethical ones. Technical details aside, however, the ethical debate centers on the value of the source of these cells: the embryo.

Since the establishment of cell lines only has to be done once, one argument is to simply let the scientific research continue on established cell lines and not destroy any new embryos. There are currently 19 existing embryonic stem cell lines available through the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry at the National Institutes of Health. Guidelines for research on these lines using federal funding were issued by President George W. Bush on August 9, 2001. They require that (1) the removal of the inner cell mass from the embryo has already been initiated and (2) the embryo from which the stem cell line was derived no longer has the possibility of development as a human being. In addition, the guidelines state that (3) the stem cells must have been derived from an embryo that was created for reproductive purposes, (4) the embryo was no longer needed for these purposes, (5) informed consent must have been obtained for the donation of the embryo and (6) no financial inducements were provided for donation of the embryo.

These guidelines seem to me to be themselves an excellent example of Peters’ use of the term “beneficence.” They seek to place limits on the use of human embryonic stem cells while still allowing for research that may improve human life.

After weighing the options, both as a scientist and as a Christian, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to continue to vigorously research adult stem cells, their potential therapies and their varied sources before agreeing that embryonic stem cell research is the “be all, end all” for regenerative medicine. At the same time, I do not support the destruction of the existing embryonic stem cell lines as some people advocate. Instead, I think research should continue on those lines, and I would like to see them available to an even broader group of researchers so that more scientific minds can come together to discover the potential of these cells. We need a great deal more information about both adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells to make the important decisions before us.

Where does the stem cell controversy lead scientists? Are we really the “high priests of nature” Peters describes? Scientists are often perceived as keeping dark secrets only to release them on an unsuspecting general population and use the information to fan debate. In my opinion, however, scientists are just like much of the general population. They desire to follow the beneficence principle Peters sets out, but genuinely disagree among themselves about the status of the embryo. Thus we scientists, too, debate the direction of stem cell research. Participating in this discussion should be well-informed Christians and people of a wide variety of faith backgrounds. They should be knowledgeable about the biology of stem cells, their sources and their incredible potential for disease treatment. They should also understand the ethical implications of the science.

All of this makes Christian higher education more important than ever as a conduit of information and dialogue. Like no other, this controversy is an opportunity for us to engage the culture around us by becoming educated, listening to others and actively expressing our own views. We can truly help to shape the world’s understanding of the best approach to stem cell research.

Is Our DNA Sacred?
  Clarifying Christian Concerns

Science and Beneficence




Join the discussion on therapeutic cloning and stem cell research on Response 's Online Bulletin Board by clicking here.


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