This is the last Saturday post focusing on a past Briefing article on ethics, infertility and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in anticipation of the subject of the next issue of The Briefing. To recapitulate, first, we grappled with Michael Hill’s question of how much (and whether) humans should meddle with God’s creation. Then Kirsten Birkett showed us what happens when science and technology, ethics and morality, and human rights rub up against one another. Then we watched Andrew Cameron deconstruct some of the rhetoric surrounding the 2002 debate in Australia about when life begins. This week, Megan Best navigates the minefield of cloning, stem cell research and Australian government policy to figure out how Christians should think about these things:
When Prime Minister John Howard recently announced his intention to allow human stem cell research in Australia, there were still many citizens wondering what the debate was about. This momentous decision had been made before an informed and thorough community discussion had taken place. Legislation has not yet been passed, though, and there is still time for the Christian community to get informed and take action.
Stem cells were first extracted from embryos in 1998. This caused great excitement in the scientific world, because stem cells have special properties. They have the capacity to develop into many different body tissue types (such as bone, muscle, brain etc) and can replicate themselves indefinitely. Scientists hope to use them to replace tissue in patients where cell death has occurred. For example, heart disease can result in the death of cells which the body cannot replace, and it is hoped that injected stem cells may stimulate heart tissue growth. It is hoped that cures will be developed for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and injuries such as a severed spinal cord. Since the first discovery it has been found that stem cells also occur in adults, children, placentas and umbilical cord blood. The recent government decision was to allow ‘spare’ embryos in infertility clinics (that is, embryos which were created in excess of patient need), to be used as a source of stem cells for experimentation.
The harvesting of stem cells from human embryos causes the death of the embryo. Taking stem cells from sources other that the embryo does not harm a human being.
A detail which was not always explained in the media coverage of embryonic stem cell research is that it will require human cloning to become a therapeutic reality. In order to avoid immune system rejection of the stem cells injected into a patient, the cells will have to match the patient’s DNA. Therefore, the IVF embryo stem cells will not be useful in actually treating patients as they will have their own different DNA. To overcome this problem, scientists plan to create human clones of each patient to be treated. The clones will be grown in a laboratory for 5-7 days, then killed when the stem cells are taken out. These stem cells will match the patient, and after being transformed into the needed cell type, will be injected back into the patient. The process used to create the clone is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. It is the same technique as that used to make Dolly the sheep. Even though scientists have tried to confuse us by saying that ‘therapeutic’ cloning (that used to get stem cells) and ‘reproductive’ cloning (that used to create a live birth) are different, they use the same method. If a human clone made for stem cells were put in a woman’s womb instead of being killed for stem cells, it would grow into a baby. This is not a wild fantasy – Dr Severino Antinori in Italy has already hinted that a woman in his programme (which uses somatic cell nuclear transfer) is pregnant with a human clone.
Cloning is not involved in adult stem cell therapy as the cells can be taken from the patient to be treated, so there is no risk of immune rejection.