Academic journal article Care Management Journals

The Stem Cell Divide: The Facts, the Fictions, and the Fear Driving the Greatest Scientific, Political, and Religious Debate of Our Time

Academic journal article Care Management Journals

The Stem Cell Divide: The Facts, the Fictions, and the Fear Driving the Greatest Scientific, Political, and Religious Debate of Our Time

Article excerpt


Over the past several years, public debate about the ethical and scientific merit of human stem cell research has become increasingly heated. The stakes of this debate were perhaps most clearly marked in August 2001 when President George W. Bush announced his administration's policy on extending federal funding to certain kinds of stem cell research. By allowing federal funding for research on existing lines of embryonic stem cells, the Bush administration effectively loosened earlier legislation that "prohibited the federal government from using taxpayer dollars to support any research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed." 1

Not surprisingly, the administration's policy met with mixed reactions. Some commentators viewed the reluctance of the administration to extend funding to all embryonic stem cell research as an objectionable compromise to the religious right. On this view, the administration's policy would seriously limit important life-saving research in the service of controversial views about the moral status of the embryo. Other commentators, however, read the policy more charitably. They claimed that the administration's policy reflected "a perfectly appropriate exercise of governmental powers in a liberal democracy." 2 After all, the policy did not ban human embryonic stem cell research. It left open the possibility for scientists to seek other nonfederal sources of funding for their research.

Michael Bellomo's book, The Stem Cell Divide, does not spend too much time dwelling on the details of the now famous "Bush Compromise." Instead, he aims to provide readers with a broader look at the scientific, economic, and political aspects of stem cell research. His hope is that this approach will provide readers with enough background information to assess knowledgeably current and future policies affecting stem cell research.

There is much useful information in the book, and readers will profit from the balanced and detailed treatment of the background context of the stem cell debate. The book is divided into three main sections. Section I focuses on the historical scientific developments that led to the earliest research on cellular growth and regeneration. At the start of this section, Bellomo details how the work of Abraham Trembley in the 18th century laid the early foundation for the stem cell research that currently engages contemporary scientists. His brief discussion of the work of other scientists in this era reveals that stem cell research is not a brand new development-a product solely of 20th and 21st century science.

Nonscientists will appreciate the straightforward manner in which Bellomo describes the nature of stem cells. Indeed, this aspect of section 1 is perhaps the most important, since so much of the ethical and public controversy over stem cell research has to do with where the really valuable stem cells are to be found. Generally speaking, stem cells are cells that "have the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and to give rise to specialized cells" (Bellomo, p. 252). But stem cells can come from a variety of sources. As Bellomo explains, the drive to use embryonic stem cells is compelling because stem cells derived from this source retain the highest degree of pluripotency. These cells are still undifferentiated and therefore have the potential to develop into a wide variety of specialized cell types (p. 245). Embryonic stem cells, however, can only be obtained by removing the inner cell mass of the blastocyst, thereby destroying the embryo. Adult stem cells, by contrast, are not derived from embryos and are therefore not subject to the same moral controversy as embryonic stem cells. These cells can be found in various parts of the body such as the brain cells, bone marrow cells, and digestive cells. …

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