The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Stem Cell Study Not Immoral, Poses Benefits

Stem cell research has the potential to be that cure-all, but because the source of the cells is tied up with the right to life debate, federal researchers' ability to do promising research is pinned to politics.

A poll by Research America reports that 65 percent of Americans support stem cell research by the National Institutes of Health. Great Britain's Parliament voted at the end of last year to permit stem cell research in the UK.

But President Bush's pro-life stance and campaign promise to halt embryonic stem cell research threaten to drastically slow promising research here.

From conception through the first few cellular divisions, a human embryo is made of stem cells. These cells are considered primitive because they have not yet developed into any of the more specialized cells in the body.

If they can catch the cells in that window, scientists can use chemical signals to develop these basic cells into any cells in the body, including those in the pancreas, nerves, brain, and heart. These cells could then be used to repair parts of the human body damaged by disease or injury.

While the process has nothing to do with abortion or fetal tissue debates, this is a hot political and moral issue because human embryos must be destroyed to harvest the stem cells.

The embryos come from fertility clinics, where doctors create more embryos during in-vitro fertilization than the couple needs. They implant some in the woman, then freeze the rest. Thousands of human embryos are sitting in fertility clinic freezers right now with very little hope of ever reaching their full potential as human beings.

But those who believe life begins at conception would say the embryos are human beings already, and scientists are murdering them. And so the right-to-life lobby enters the scene. To them, this kind of research is akin to the Nazis making lampshades out of human skin.

The graphic imagery is enough to make your skin crawl, but it's not a valid analogy to what's happening in embryonic stem cell research.

Congress officially opposes stem cell research, although pro-stem cell legislation was introduced last year. Currently, the law forbids federally funded scientists from conducting research using human embryos or parts of human embryos. This left the research to a much smaller number of privately funded scientists.

Then in 1999, Donna Shalala and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reinterpreted the rules, saying that as long as scientists didn't use federal funds to destroy embryos, they could use stem cells derived by private researchers.

Pro-life members of Congress were outraged at Shalala's end-run around the laws, but Clinton supported the decision. Last year, the National Institutes of Health released guidelines for ethically responsible stem cell research.

But Bush is pro-life. He has said he prefers research using adult stem cells, which are found in bone marrow and the brain but have not been shown to be as flexible as embryonic cells.

Yet perhaps the president is looking at the issue in all its complexity instead of rejecting it outright. He appointed former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who publicly supported stem cell discoveries by Wisconsin scientists, as head of HHS. And while Bush acted quickly to cut off U.S. support of global organizations that provide abortions, he has not yet acted on this issue.

Perhaps there's hope. Universities and patients' rights organizations are lobbying to show Bush the promise of this research. With luck, they'll succeed.

Although pro-life concerns are certainly valid and we must keep a close watch on ethics as biotechnology develops in coming years, scientists who research with stem cells are not murderers. They're using embryos that would never have reached potential as human beings and giving meaning to their existence.

Columnist Anne Fawcett can be reached at

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Special Print Edition
The Daily Tar Heel Victory Paper for November 20, 2023