Stem cells are the basic building blocks of the human body. They are responsible for creating, replenishing and rejuvenating over 200 of our body's cell-types. Stem cell research is an exciting new frontier for scientists and patients who are looking for cures. It is also one of our country's most hotly debated issues.
There are two main sources of stem cells used for research: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are found in a human embryo, and, in order to harvest these cells for research, the young life must be destroyed.
Adult stem cells – also referred to as non-embryonic stem cells – come from a variety of sources in the human body and do not require the destruction of young human life. Adult stem cells can currently be obtained from bone marrow, nasal tissue, fat, blood, brain tissue, amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood. It seems like new sources of adult stem cells are found nearly every day.
Adult stem cell research has provided treatments and cures for patients suffering from over 70 diseases and conditions. Contrary to these successes, destructive embryonic stem cell research has yet to provide any successful treatments for patients.
Proponents of embryonic stem cell research have said the lack of success with these cells is due to the shortage of embryos available for research. This has led researchers to attempt the cloning of human embryos, raising further debate over the creation and destruction of human life.
In direct contrast to the life-destroying embryonic stem cells, a new type of ethical research that uses ordinary adult body cells is providing scientists and patients with hope for ethical research options.
This new research uses ordinary adult body cells – like skin cells – and, with some added growth factors, prompts them to become embryonic-like stem cells. These induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) have the flexibility (pluripotency) of embryonic stem cells without the moral problems of destroying human life.
The discovery of this new technique has led to a surprising shift in tone with researchers who have been strong advocates for embryonic stem cell research. The monopoly of media attention and science rhetoric which has long been skewed toward destructive embryonic stem cell research seems to be cracking.
Embryonic stem cell research and the cloning of human embryos for research require the destruction of tiny, living humans – violating the sanctity of human life. Every human, in every condition from the single cell stage of development to natural death, is made in God's image and possesses inestimable worth. Our human nature – not our size, level of development, environment or functional capacity – gives us worth and dignity as human beings. Therefore, devaluing and destroying the life of a human embryo opens the door to the devaluing and destroying any human life.
In addition to the moral problems, scientific concerns abound with embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research is often touted as the most promising option because these cells are a "blank slate" capable of changing into all of the body's cell types. However, less well known is that many types of adult stem cells have the same ability – often referred to as pluripotency. And now, with the advent of iPS cells (adult body cells reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells), we have yet another source of flexible stem cells that do not require the destruction of young human life.
Scientifically, embryonic stem cell research continues to hit research dead-ends. What was once hailed as the most promising option for curing a whole host of diseases (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes) has yet to yield any tangible cures for human patients. In fact, the only consistent news we get about embryonic stem cell research is overly hyped exclamations about great "breakthroughs."
The status of stem cell research is clear. Morally problematic, life destroying embryonic stem cell research is losing ground as a possible option for treating disease. But ethical, scientifically sound non-embryonic stem cell research is providing real therapies and basic research.
One of Focus on the Family's guiding principles is the sanctity of human life. We believe that human life is created by God in His image. It is of inestimable worth and significance in all its dimensions, including the preborn, the aged, those deemed unattractive, the physically or mentally challenged, and every other condition in which humanness is expressed from the single cell stage of development to natural death. Christians are therefore called to defend, protect and value all human life.
Technology and scientific research has tremendous potential for doing good, but that same technology can also be used for evil. Therefore, moral and ethical considerations must be taken into account. Stem cell research can be conducted within an ethical framework while at the same time provide treatments and cures for suffering patients.
Focus on the Family supports and encourages stem cell research using non-embryonic sources of stem cells, including umbilical cord blood, placenta, bone marrow and various adult tissues. No human lives are destroyed in harvesting stem cells from these sources. Therapies from these stem cells already provide beneficial treatments to patients (in contrast to the speculative study involving human embryonic stem cells), and such research should be a priority for both public and privately funded research.
Focus on the Family opposes stem cell research using human embryos. In order to isolate and culture embryonic stem cells, a living human embryo must be killed. It is never morally or ethically justifiable to kill one human being in order to benefit another. By requiring the destruction of embryos – the tiniest human beings – embryonic stem cell research violates the medical ethic, "Do No Harm." It is also important to note that, to date, embryonic stem cell research has not treated or cured one patient.
As we look at upcoming biotechnologies and new forms of stem cell research, we encourage researchers to look for ethical ways to obtain research material and potential cures for patients.
In the midst of the debate over embryonic and adult stem cells, researchers pursued the idea of finding ethical, alternative sources of stem cells that have the properties of embryonic stem cells. iPS cells were some of the fruits of that pursuit. Thanks to pro-life voices involved in the debate, there continue to be ethical options for treating disease and ethical advancements in new stem cell research.