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Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Devaluation of Human Life

With all the available alternatives, why the insistence on using embryonic stem cells for research? There remains a regulatory vacuum.

McMaster University recently announced that it plans to use $15 million of a $50 million donation to create Canada's first human embryonic stem cell library. The intent is to create a central repository of genetic data from embryonic stem cells to be accessible to researchers around the world. The announcement has not raised a firestorm of controversy, but we should be very concerned about the implications of creating a storage facility for embryonic stem cells "for future use."

Believing that life is a gift from God informs a consistent ethic regarding the value of human life.

Embryonic stem cell research is the latest example in our society's seemingly acceptance of the devaluation of human life. The prevalence in Canada's abortion rate, the softening of attitudes towards euthanasia and assisted suicide are some other examples that the sanctity of life is not as highly regarded as it used to be. There are people who do not call the life in the womb a baby, but rather depersonalize it by referring to it as a foetus, a mass of growing tissue with no protection under Canadian law. In the same way, they further depersonalize life in its beginning form by claiming it is merely a compilation of embryonic stem cells; its only value being for research purposes.

Isn't it interesting that over the years we, as a society, have become increasingly concerned about the ethics of testing on animals and yet at the same time there seems to be a greater acceptance of research using embryonic human beings?

Believing that life is a gift from God informs a consistent ethic regarding the value of human life. As Christians, we believe that human life is created in the image of God and has inherent dignity and worth. Protecting human dignity requires that life be respected and protected through all its stages—from conception to natural death. The human embryo is not merely a potential human being—it is a human being, and as such is deserving of protection and respect. Research that leads to the destruction of human embryos treats the embryo as an object to be utilized for some potential benefit, and undermines our respect for human life.

Research that deliberately destroys one human life to possibly benefit another is unethical, and as a growing body of scientific research seems to suggest, unnecessary. Human embryos are not the only source of potentially beneficial human stems cells. Stem cells are readily available from umbilical cord blood, bone marrow and a number of other adult tissues. Recent adult stem cell research has yielded results as promising as those of embryonic stem cell research.

A research team at the University of Central Florida found that treating bone marrow cells with a compound related to DNA made adult stems cells more likely to turn into brain cells.

Researchers at Chosun University in South Korea plan to "isolate stem cells from umbilical cord blood and inject them into retinal cells" to help adults with a degenerative eye disease see again.

With all of this information, why the insistence of using embryonic stem cells for research? It's hard to escape the impassioned appeals from high profile personalities, such as Michael J. Fox and the late Christopher Reeve who, suffering from debilitating disease or injury, have called on governments to legalize and increase funding for stem cell research.

On top of that, the issues are complicated and made increasingly so with new developments in reproductive and genetic technology which are reported almost weekly.

Then there are the difficult questions that are inevitably asked, such as, "What is to be done with the "surplus" in vitro fertilized embryos if they're not used for research? Are they poured down the sink drain? Should there be burial with prayers?" Key is to urge parents not to create more embryos than is needed for use for in vitro fertilization. If there are "surplus" embryos, they should remain "frozen" for a future pregnancy by that mother or made available for adoption to another mother in need of an embryo.

Years of hard work and extensive consultations have gone into crafting and passing laws governing assisted human reproduction and related technologies and research, but there remains a regulatory vacuum. The agency structure is still being set up, and the vast majority of the regulations have yet to be developed. We would urge caution for any institution to not move too far ahead before the regulations are put in place. The regulations should be developed and unfolded in consultation with a range of stakeholders, recognizing that many Canadians find this research morally objectionable.

As a faith community, we believe that all human beings are made in the image of God. Jeremiah 1:5 states, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart." Therefore, any discussion of human reproductive technology must be based on a respect for human dignity from conception forward.

Douglas Cryer is the director of public policy for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.




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