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News of the Day ... In Perspective

1/17/2007

Embryo wars heat up

Within the first few hours under speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House of Representatives enacted one of her top priorities, H.R. 3, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2006. The bill would force taxpayers to fund research that sacrifices human embryos for their stem cells. The margin (253-174) was not sufficient to override the expected presidential veto.

Key proponents of the bill rejected an anti-human-cloning amendment. National Right to Life legislative director Douglas Johnson writes that this is “one more proof that the biotech industry is determined to use human cloning to create human embryo farms.” He also notes that opponents of H.R. 3 support stem-cell research of the type that does not destroy embryos—so far the only type to yield advances in the treatment of human diseases and injuries.

Charles Krauthammer, a “secularly inclined” person who supports legal abortion and does not believe that human life—“meaning the attributes and protections of personhood”—begins at conception, supports the President’s stance.

“…I applauded his insistence that some line must be drawn, that human embryos are not nothing, and that societal values, not just the scientific imperative, should determine how they are treated.”

Krauthammer thinks that amniotic fluid might yield the “Goldilocks of stem cells,” not so primitive that they grow uncontrollably into tumors, and more “pluripotential” than adult stem cells. This could turn stem-cell research from a morally dubious into an uncontroversial and more efficient enterprise.

He thinks that Bush’s unpopular, arbitrary, and temporary policy forces the country “to at least ponder the moral cost of turning one potential human being into replacement parts for another.” Who, he asks, “will be holding the line next time, when another Faustus promises medical nirvana if he is permitted to transgress just one moral boundary?” (Charles Krauthammer, Arizona Daily Star 1/13/07).

Krauthammer would, however, permit the dismemberment of fertility-clinic embryos that are discarded and going to die anyway. This might possibly include some of the 1,400 embryos rescued by seven Illinois Conservation Police and three Louisiana state troopers from a sweltering hospital two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Officers took flat-bottomed boats through the hospital’s flooded corridors, and floated the embryos out in tanks that the clinic had topped off with liquid nitrogen before disaster hit.

“One of these embryos could be the next president,” said Lieutenant Eric Bumgarner. One of the embryos he helped to save, Noah Benton Markham, was born in New Orleans on January 16 (Arizona Daily Star 1/4/07, 1/17/07).

Amniotic stem cells are hailed as a breakthrough that could change the terms of the debate. Researchers at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest have used such cells to create muscle, bone, fat, blood vessel, nerve, and liver cells. In mice with neurodegenerative diseases, cells derived from amniotic-fluid stem cells homed in on damaged areas of the brain and repopulated them with fresh neurons (MedPage Today 1/8/07).

A Texas clinic now offers “off-the-shelf” embryos for sale, although they are produced by the usual processes from egg and sperm donors and not by cloning. Single women and infertile couples (and potentially gay men and lesbian couples) can order an embryo after reviewing information about the race, education, appearance, and other characteristics of the donors. The embryo brokerage, the Abraham Center of Life LLC of San Antonio, calls itself “the world’s first human embryo bank.”

Jennalee Ryan, who runs the center, says that her embryos are better than the 400,000 excess embryos stored at fertility clinics because “she uses young, fertile donors,” whereas those at fertility clinics usually come from older women with fertility problems.

The legal status of these embryos is “unsettled.”

One batch of 22 embryos was produced from an egg donor in her twenties (Washington Post 1/6/07). A frequently overlooked problem with all procedures that require egg donation, including research cloning and somatic cell nuclear transfer, is the risk to the woman who supplies the eggs.

Some women’s health advocates ask how women can give meaningful informed consent when there is so little data about the safety of egg retrieval. This requires giving hormones that first “shut down” and then over-stimulate the ovaries, followed by surgical extraction of multiple eggs under general anesthesia.

In the Korean cloning scandal, 13 of 119 women whose eggs were used experienced reactions serious enough to require hospitalization (Marcy Darnovsky, LifeNews.com 11/4/06).

Last summer, a healthy 37-year-old woman died in Britain after her eggs were obtained for in vitro fertilization, apparently of internal bleeding and renal failure. The hyperstimulation syndrome can result in renal failure; effects on future fertility are not known.

One egg donor likened the experience to prostitution. “I definitely wasn’t in charge there…. You’ve rented your body out…. It was like you were some kind of prized heifer or something” (Katrina George, LifeNews.com 8/22/06).

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