Embryonic Stem Cells: No Harm, No Foul
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines logic as “a science that deals with the principles and criteria of validity of inference and demonstration; the science of formal reasoning” (2006, p. emp. added). Consider the words “formal reasoning” in regard to the latest mainstream media headline, “New Stem-Cell Method Doesn’t Harm Embryos” (Crenson, 2006). For years the media has maintained that embryonic stem cell research does not involve the destruction of “life.” They have consistently maintained that there is nothing ethically wrong with ripping open a human embryo and destroying it in an effort to harvest the stem cells inside. For instance, CNN ridiculed President George Bush in his decision to limit funds for embryonic stem cell research, stating that “Bush claims the research destroys life because embryos are destroyed in the process” (“House Passes...”, 2005). Defenders of embryonic stem cell research maintain that freezers should be thrown open so that scientists can experiment on IVF “leftover” embryos—after all, they contend these frozen embryos do not represent human life. For instance, earlier this year when President Bush vetoed embryonic stem cell research, Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, was interviewed on “Good Morning America.” Fox could not understand Bush’s desire to veto the bill. He noted: “I think that to make a choice to protect millions of cells that are going to be destroyed over protecting millions of living...human beings and citizens of this country is hard to get around it” (“Michael J. Fox...,” 2006).
How can something “harm” an embryo if it is not living? Why promote a new procedure claiming it “doesn’t harm embryos” if previous proclamations were true? Where is the logic in this situation? Either embryos represent life (which they do) and should be protected from harm, or this tissue/“group of cells” does not represent a living human being, and thus, one should not worry about harm. By declaring a new scientific procedure that allegedly “does not harm embryos,” the media has indirectly admitted embryos represent life, and can, in fact, be harmed by scientific procedures. How about some consistency from those who represent the “news” media? What happened to “formal reasoning”?
Media frenzy aside, what is the truth regarding this latest procedure? Nature staff writer Helen Pearson observed: “A single cell can be teased from a human embryo and used to produce stem cells while leaving the embryo intact” (2006, 442:858). Matt Crenson, staff writer for the Associated Press, noted:
A biotechnology company has developed a new way of creating stem cells without destroying human embryos, billing it as a potential solution to a contentious political and ethical debate. ‘This will make it far more difficult to oppose this research,’ said Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology, the Alameda, California company that reported the new method (2006).
Before we investigate the amazing claims, we need to turn our attention to this company making it “difficult to oppose this research.” Advanced Cell Technology is the same organization that reported in 1998 that they had created a “transgenic” cow/human hybrid embryo (Cibelli, et al., 280:1256-1258). Three years later, on October 13, 2001, this same organization reported that they had created human embryos through a process known as nuclear transfer (i.e., cloning), which resulted in the death of eight precious embryos (“U.S. Cloning...,” 2001). The company that is making this spectacular claim about harvesting embryonic stem cells does not have a good track-record when it comes to ethical decisions regarding human life.
But were they able to pull it off? Has Advanced Cell Technology truly made it “difficult to oppose this research”? Nicholas Wade, staff writer for the New York Times, declared:
Biologists have developed a technique for establishing colonies of human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos, a method that, if confirmed in other laboratories, would seem to remove the principle objection to stem cell research. “There is no rational reason left to oppose this research,” said Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of Advanced Cell Technology and leader of a team that reported the new method in an article published online by the journal Nature (2006, emp. added).
Rather than blindly accepting all of the hyperbole from the mainstream media, readers are encouraged to examine the original research paper. Titled “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Lines Derived from Single Blastomeres,” Irina Klimanskaya and her colleagues explain the process:
A series of experiments was carried out to determine whether hES [human embryonic stem cell—BH] cells can be derived from single blastomeres [cells produced by the egg after fertilization—BH] (Supplementary Table 1). Unused embryos produced by in vitro fertilization (IVF) for clinical purposes were obtained with full informed consent and used in compliance with Advanced Cell Technology’s ethics advisory board and institutional review board. Sixteen pronuclear- and multicell-stage embryos were thawed and cultured to the 8–10-cell stage in 20-l microdrops of Quinn’s cleavage medium under paraffin oil (see Methods). Six of these embryos were grade I or II (symmetrical and even cell division with little or no cytoplasmic fragmentation), whereas the remaining ten embryos were grade III (variable fragmentation), using a standard scoring system; embryos with blastomeres of unequal size and moderate-to-severe fragmentation (grades IV and V) were excluded from this study. The zona pellucida [the membrane surrounding the blastocyst—BH] was disrupted and individual blastomeres mechanically separated from the denuded embryos using a micropipette and gentle tapping of the pipette holder. The separated blastomeres were cultured together in the same medium, arranged so as to avoid contact with each other using depressions created in the bottom of the plastic tissue culture plate, as described previously (Klimanskaya, et al., 2006).
What sentence was noticeably missing in this methodological description? How about what happened to the human embryos in this experiment? The reason it was not boldly proclaimed—like the other claims—was that the embryos were destroyed! The Los Angeles Times was the only major mainstream newspaper that bothered reporting this small fact—and even then, they minimized the importance. Karen Kaplan observed: “To maximize their chance for success, they dismantled (read that “tore apart”—BH) the embryos into 91 separate blastomeres and placed them in culture dishes” (2006). She continued: “Although the embryos were destroyed in this experiment, Lanza said it was not necessary to destroy the embryos for the procedure to work” (2006, emp. added). Lanza deemed it unnecessary to destroy the embryos, but apparently his team had no ethical problem with destroying human life. The obvious unanswered question is: Why are scientists so committed to experimenting on embryonic stem cells when adult stem cells have demonstrated far more promise for curing diseases? Incredibly, this admission in the Los Angeles Times falls under the misleading headline: “Stem Cell Advance Spares Embryos.” The truth is, in this procedure, human embryos were destroyed in an effort to generate additional stem cell lines. And this is supposed to make it “difficult to oppose embryonic stem cell research”?
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, commented:
But it turned out not to be true. First, the study did not involve the removal of one cell from an embryo that then continued to develop. Instead, researchers disaggregated 16 living embryos, killing them all, and took an average of six cells from each. The 91 resulting embryonic cells were then placed near one another in dishes and allowed to divide. Some divided, while others died, and from the cells that divided researchers were able to produce two lines of embryonic stem cells. In other words, the study did virtually nothing to prove the point that Advanced Cell Technology (the company that carried out the experiments) had argued in the press: that single cells removed from an early embryo and cultured by themselves can produce lines of embryonic stem cells (2006, emp. added).
Indeed, Advanced Cell Technology killed embryos to recover stem cells. However, the damage has now been done. The American public has received a sales pitch that many believe to be true. Nature staff writer Helen Pearson and AP writer Matt Crenson were either ignorant of the real study, or they purposefully tried to deceive the public by declaring “embryos can yield stem cells and survive.” Neither option is acceptable for science writers who knowingly influence millions of Americans with the careless strokes of their pen.
These extravagant claims sound reminiscent of another headline that appeared the week the Senate was to vote on a bill regarding stem cell research: “Paralyzed Rats Walk in Stem Cell Study” (Emery, 2006). A close inspection of the actual study in that case revealed that the animals were unable to bear weight and step contralaterally (see Harrub, 2006). Great headline, but poor news reporting. These major news stories have left the general public with the false notion that embryonic stem cells can heal paralysis and can be obtained without injuring the embryo. This ongoing deception can only be described as the marketing of evil by those wanting to devalue human life and maintain abortion on demand. Is it any wonder that the latest FDA approval of “Plan B” (described as an emergency contraceptive, but better defined as a post-conception abortion pill) received a major push from the media and abortion rights activists.
Maybe someone should alert Nancy Pearson to the warning given by BBC News on August 29, 2006: “Patients should beware of so-called stem cell wonder cures as most have not been properly tested, experts say” (“Stem Cell...,” 2006). The report went on to warn the public about “extravagant claims,” and concluded: “This is a delicately poised field of research, with a difficult ethical background. Just one application of maverick stem cell science that leads to cancer could set back the legitimate field by years, if not decades” (“Stem Cell...”). So what about maverick news stories that make grandiose claims and never come back to set the record straight? How far back will they place the truth regarding embryonic stem cell research in the public’s mind?
The only positive news that came from this media grandstanding was the fact that the media finally recognized embryonic stem cell research harms life. Logic demands that if an embryo can be hurt, then it represents life—and as such, it deserves the full protection of the law and Constitution. Any other argument is illogical.
Cibelli, Jose, Steve L. Stice, Paul J. Golueke, et al. (1998), “Cloned Transgenic Calves Produced from Nonquiescent Fetal Fibroblasts,” Science, 280:1256-1258, May 22.
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“Michael J. Fox Touts Need for Stem Cell Research” (2006), ABC News, July 19, [On-line], URL: http://www.abcnews.go.com/GMA/Health/story?id=2210355 &page=1.
Pearson, Helen (2006), “Early Embryos Can Yield Stem Cells...and Survive,” Nature, 442:858, August 24.
“Stem Cell ‘Wonder Cures’ Warning” (2006), BBC News, August 29, [On-line], URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/5294434.stm.
“U.S. Cloning Advance Shocks the World” (2001), CNN, November 21, [On-line], URL: http://archives.cnn.com/2001/TECH/science/11/26/human.cloning.reax1200/ index.html.
Wade, Nicholas (2006), “New Stem Cell Method Avoids Destroying Embryos,” The New York Times, August 23, [On-line], URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/23/ science/23cnd-stem.html?ex=1157169600&en=863f42e7d1c90be5& ei=5070.