Breaking New Ground on Stem Cells: Embryonic Stem Cells without Harming Embryos-New Research Opens Minds

By Oz, Mehmet C. | The Saturday Evening Post, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Breaking New Ground on Stem Cells: Embryonic Stem Cells without Harming Embryos-New Research Opens Minds


Oz, Mehmet C., The Saturday Evening Post


Do you think you know all you need to about embryonic stem cells? Cutting-edge information could revolutionize our debate and unify all Americans. And paradoxically, the solution in our stem-cell debate lies more in correctly discerning death than in a universal definition of life.

The ethics of destroying embryos to make stem cells is often framed as "an immovable object meets an irresistible force"--respect for human life colliding with the desire to relieve human suffering. However, both sides believe that the taking of innocent human life is immoral and should never be condoned. And both accept the possibility that embryonic stem cells could provide valuable interim medical treatments, even though ultimately competing options like adult stem cells may offer an equally effective choice.

Thus the real debate on stem cells arises more from disagreement on defining life than either a rejection of the principle that the end does not justify the means or disbelief over potential benefits of this technology.

So when does life begin?

The answer is not simple. Life is a continuous, unbroken thread connecting each generation to the next. A new human appears on this thread at fertilization because at that point a new organism with unique DNA comes into existence. But should our reverence for human life and our constitutional protections be engaged from the moment of fertilization? This question is the focus of the embryonic stem cell debate--a debate on when a new human person comes into existence. No compromise is possible in this debate but, against all odds, common ground has emerged. Colleagues at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, approached this controversy counterintuitively, seeking to determine when an embryo dies (Landry and Zucker, Journal of Clinical Investigation, 2004). Death is the key. At that moment, regardless of what someone feels about the personhood of embryos, if an embryo has died, the issue of personhood is resolved.

If you remain unsure of this premise, back into it slowly with an intermediate question: "If a human dies in utero naturally and is spontaneously aborted, would you be willing to discuss organ donation of the dead fetus?" As health professionals, we pose the challenging question of organ donation to grieving families every day, and Americans on both sides of the stem cell debate have responded favorably by donating organs and saving tens of thousands of lives annually. Ethicists and religious leaders from many sects agree that organ donation is appropriate after proper discussions with and consent of next of kin. Can the settled ethics of organ donation be applied to cell donation from embryos that have died?

Now here is the new scientific insight that could revolutionize the embryonic stem cell debate. The most risky period during a human's life is during the first few days of existence. Approximately 60 percent of fertilized eggs perish prior to implantation into a mother's uterus. The causes happen in natural fertilization, as well as after in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF clinics can recognize embryos that are not going to survive. They label them "nonviable" and discard them for reproductive purposes. Our researchers pose an "outside the box" question: Could some embryos labeled nonviable actually be dead, yet contain a few live stem cells?

Not all the cells of a developed person need be dead for that person to be declared dead. Organ transplantation is possible because we diagnose death before many cells in the donor have died. The universal concept of death is an irreversible loss of integrated function. Brain death is one way we diagnose this irreversible loss. But how do we discern human death at a stage before the brain develops? Here it is important to note that an embryo is more than a ball of cells. It is an organism with communicating cells. If some cells are abnormal, then normal ones, deprived of this communication, stop dividing. …

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