Support stem cell research - the most important development since the discovery of antibiotics

In the course of human history new discoveries, particularly in the fields of science and medicine, have challenged established thought. This is now happening again with stem cell research. What could lead to curing many diseases that up to now have been fatal is coming under a barrage of criticism because of religious and reactionary prejudices.

Have you ever read a news story about a child battling against leukaemia who has been searching for a bone marrow donor and a match that would save his or her young life? Later, you read an update; yes, a donor has been found, the transplant of bone marrow worked and both donor and patient are doing well. Do you not feel joy in your heart? Are you not delighted for all concerned? You might be surprised to learn that bone marrow transplant is stem cell replacement.

Today it is common to hear about childless couples undergoing successful IVF treatment, allowing them to have children who would not otherwise have been born. IVF is stem cell treatment too. Examples of medical science making the impossible possible.

IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation) involves the total manipulation of the entire fertilisation process, taking place as it does in a laboratory, outside the natural environment. Cells from the sperm of a male are taken and injected into eggs extracted from the womb of a female. The fertilised cells are grown and coaxed before being put back inside the womb to develop. Is this practice "evil"? Is it "immoral" for couples to seek this treatment? Is the conduct of scientists, nurses and doctors who all participate and facilitate these proceedings "unethical"?

A stem cell is an unspecified cell that can evolve into the different cells necessary for a human being. The term "stem cell research" was until recent years to be found only in obscure scientific and medical journals, but since the phenomenon of Dolly the sheep less than a decade ago most people have heard the phrase. Dolly was created by Professor Ian Wilmut and scientists at the Rosslyn Institute in Scotland and the news made headlines around the world. Wilmut removed a mammary gland from a Dorset Finn sheep and isolated the nucleus of the cell. The nucleus of a living cell contains all the information, data and instructions that make up the DNA of a living thing. The nucleus was then inserted into an egg that had no nucleus taken from a Black-faced Scottish ewe. By carefully controlling the fertilised cell and using the female sheep as a carrier of the fertilised cell, Wilmut created Dolly - an exact copy of the Dorset Finn sheep. It was an identical biologically exact reproduction of the Dorset Finn sheep - a clone. Dolly was the culmination of many years of research and the product of hundreds of attempts. It was achieved on a shoestring budget and has generated much debate and controversy. Now that cloning can be done successfully people are concerned about risks and possible abuses.

Challenges and scientific discoveries

In the course of human history new discoveries and detections, particularly in the fields of science and medicine, have challenged established thought and pushed at the boundaries of perception. The human race has had to re-evaluate fixed ideas and positions many times in response to the questions thrown up. Sometimes we are forced, kicking and screaming, to abandon old comfortable ways when confronted with rational thought and truth.

Human beings are very conservative by nature. Change is resisted especially when a certain way of doing things is traditional and seems to work well. New information collides with the way we have been taught to think for generations. We face such a prospect at the present time and stand at a critical point in history.

The ongoing research into stem cell therapies as a treatment or possibly even a cure for diseases that have blighted us for all our existence and baffled doctors and scientists means that we find ourselves, as a society, in a period of unparalleled medical, scientific, social and moral challenges. We are on the verge of eliminating motor neurone disease, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's syndrome, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, congenital heart disease, hereditary illness, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lots of other medical conditions. The extirpation of these catastrophic diseases through stem cell research should be a cause for celebration.

Instead there is widespread opposition among some circles throughout the world. Ignorance of scientific descriptions and words is a contributory factor, with many unable to differentiate between a cell, a neurone, a nucleus, an embryo, a clone and a foetus. The lack of information among the masses is being skilfully employed by the opponents of research who are responsible for a vacuum which highlights the need for public information on this subject as a matter of urgency. More importantly a smokescreen has been introduced by the Roman Catholic Church and the organised right wing neo-cons who form the Evangelical Christian movement in the United States.

Stem cell research is in its infancy. Yet reading the statements, looking at the websites and listening to the religious leaders of the powerful Churches, you could be forgiven for arriving at the conclusion that stem cell research has yielded very little to be optimistic about! What the opposing campaigners don't make public is that their aggressive lobbying and highly organised campaigns against further stem cell research has resulted in a block being placed for a number of years on many areas of the entire research projects. Having successfully halted much of the work, these propagandists then use the argument that stem cell research has not fulfilled the promise scientists said it would.

This jaw dropping hypocrisy shows how the ‘anti' camp are using any means necessary to thwart further research. The understanding of the cell network and how individual cells work was the result of The Human Genome project, a massive, comprehensive, scientific work completed in the late 1990s which has never been equalled. The Genome confirmed what most scientists already believed; we humans evolved over many millions of years sharing the material composition and genes of many of earth's creatures, including mice and even the humble fruit-fly. We are less than 2% genetically different from monkeys and, far from being exclusively created; we have made a fantastic journey through time to evolve into the animal we are today. Like Darwin's Origin of the Species in 1859, the Genome confirmed many things we already knew. It filled in serious gaps, but its most sensational contribution was the understanding of the cell structure and, more importantly, how to isolate certain parts.

All the evidence suggests stem cell therapy is the key to secrets that will enable us to conquer many health problems that were beyond us. For decades the scientific community has known about the potential in stem cell therapy. One of the main obstacles to progress has been lack of money. Previously all research was carried out by private companies - businesses if you like - and individual research scientists. These organisations, many of whom are answerable to directors and shareholders, were understandably reluctant to fund research without guarantees. And businesses must be aware that rivals might capitalise on their hard work. These difficulties will ease slightly, now that the government has agreed to fund scientists who will be licensed and work under strict supervision. Medical scientists are overwhelmingly enthusiastic at the concrete promise of the greatest development ever in the treatment of disease. With some financial restraints lifted, events will move at a faster pace than before.

What are stem cells? Are they human beings?

Stem cells are unspecified cells that have the ability to divide, multiply, mutate, replace themselves and grow into the different types of cells needed to become a human being. Some of these cells become specialised, for example becoming exclusively blood cells, or cells dealing with the heart, brain or muscles. Cells contain our genetic information and have different functions. Once the cell becomes specialised it is very difficult to alter its behaviour. An eye cell cannot be changed into a bone cell and so on. Human cells come from 2 main sources: An inner layer of cells from a fertilised mammalian egg known as a blastocyst and the cells from certain tissues from adults. One of the main misconceptions people have is that a fertilised mammalian egg is a human being. In fact, throughout the world, millions of fertilised mammalian eggs are stored in IVF clinics - no longer required because the recipient and donor might have completed their family. These cells are ideal for use in stem cell replacement therapy. Thousands of them are destroyed every day, unsuitable for one reason or another. Umbilical cords of newborn babies which are discarded after birth contain enormous amounts of material already fertilised that could be extracted and used. If the surplus mammalian fertilised cells manipulated by scientists are human beings, then all parents of IVF babies are "evil" in the eyes of the religious zealots. How can they argue against use of these cells especially since they are destined for destruction?

However, a strong anti-stem cell lobby exists. This campaign wields enormous influence and at its head stands the born-again evangelical Christian neo-right movement in the United States and the Roman Catholic Church. Those opposed to stem cell research have brought a sinister darkness into the debate, hinting that a Dr Moreau lurks in the shadows. It would be simple enough to tell Christians who object that they are free to decline stem cell treatments if they ever need them - just as Jehovah's Witnesses today continue to refuse whole blood transfusions on the grounds that this procedure is against the "word of God" and therefore "evil". But to argue along these lines would be to give some credibility to the illogical and baseless argument presented by Church leaders. For Christians, the single most important point is one of when actual life begins. In generations past abortion was a straightforward open and shut case. Once the woman had conceived then it was against Christian teachings to terminate the pregnancy. The Bible taught it and it has been consistent Christian theology for hundreds of years. Others argued a woman should be free to make her own choice. It was, they said, related to a woman's right to control her reproductive system and religio-politics had hijacked a matter that was essentially individual and private as well as exclusive to women. In their desperation to undermine stem cell research the Christian right and the Vatican openly link it with abortion in an attempt to deceive followers into opposing it. The late Pope, John Paul II publicly criticised the research, calling it "immoral" and "evil". Yet the Church cannot find any way to argue their position except by deceit and the spreading of wild inaccuracies presented as fact.

Because the Roman Catholic Church has no formal written instruction about the exact time a person is ensouled (gets a soul that lives after the person dies), John Paul II expanded on this so as to clarify the Church's ruling on the matter of stem cell research, "This (the moment when the sperm meets the egg in the womb) is the moment for the biological beginning of the new life," he said. Here is the rest of John Paul II's declaration given on July 23, 2001: "Experience is already showing how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide (abortion) and most recently the creation for research purposes, of human embryos, destined to be destroyed in the process".

This type of "logic" means that the religious people who oppose this crucial research cannot afford to give anything away. They find themselves in an existential crisis partly because of what they decreed in years gone by and partly because religion in the 21st century is different from its model of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now we see evidence of regression masquerading as progress. In the more established religions there has been a shift towards a cafeteria-buffet style of taking a bit of this or that and ignoring other things. For some, their religion reflects part of their identity and tradition while providing a network to consolidate and widen contacts. In a parallel instauration this generation has witnessed an enormous amount of alternative cults including contacting "dead" people while new religions have mushroomed. Sects have sprung from various Christian denominations where speaking in tongues is prevalent. Worldwide global TV broadcasts feature rallies attracting thousands as super rich preachers openly offer prayers in return for money. The authoritarian Christian lobby has an influence in politics beyond its significance, leading to the neglect of science in favour of faith-based teaching that denies truth. Creationism and texts promoting the idea that the earth and mankind are about 10,000 years old are taught to children, and not just in the USA. Increasingly, the reluctance of the state to build modern schools has allowed private enterprise to facilitate the new schools. As the owners, these individuals and groups decide the curriculum and choose the staff, including teachers. There are instances of evangelicals refusing admission to children deemed unsuitable. Meanwhile people under pressure in society seek solutions to complicated personal problems, some desiring cures for terminal illnesses. In this one area of modern life we see the empty hopelessness of a large section of the population and their desperate search for an understanding of the reasons for their malaise.

The religious leaders all denounce birth control. Are we to seriously believe that the huge reduction in the number of children born today, as opposed to 2 generations ago is the result of religious adherence to the stance on birth control? Or are we to deduce that many are quietly disobeying this Church law? What did John Paul II's pronouncement actually mean? First of all he directs part of his instruction to the long held and sacrosanct belief of Catholics and many others that to stop life once it has started in the womb is wrong as is euthanasia (mercy killing) and suicide. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the teachings of Christian denominations and the Roman Catholic Church knows these are ancient directives. Where it becomes difficult is to find - never mind follow - any logic in the connection between abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research, all described as "evil" by the Pope. Human cells are not human beings. They are not individuals. As part of a larger group and formation they have the ability to become part of the complete human being. The religious leaders dance on a pin here, because they have been caught out of their depth in various areas of doctrine which they held as fixed while science is making it impossible for many of these teachings to be sustained. Having taught their adherents certain things, they cannot backtrack at this stage. It is patently clear that a cell which can become a variety of cells, and even mutate or destroy itself, is not a human being. It has no central nervous system, no spine, no bones, no brain, no organs or no personality. It is a small blob of matter so tiny that it can only be seen under a powerful microscope. The word embryo is defined as meaning, "The pre-foetal product of conception from implantation through to the 8th week of development". A newly fertilised cell, so minute that one can only see it under a microscope, has not acquired any individuality. It is nothing more or less than a cell, capable of developing but only as part of a more complete expansion operating within the whole. The anti campaigners play on the term "embryonic" because they know that people will immediately think of a foetus.

Attempt to link stem cells with abortion

Once sperm fertilises an egg cell the result is a zygote that has the DNA of both parents. Pluripotent or embryonic stem cells are able to differentiate into all the derivatives of cells. They can develop into each/any of the 200 plus cell types that form a human body. The actual cell is incapable of discerning, at this early stage, whether it will be a cell for the cornea or a cell for the pancreas. When John Paul II made a qualitative leap of some distance and lumped stem cell research into abortion and suicide issues, he deliberately muddled words. What should be a rational, honest, fact based debate is reduced to emotional blackmail of the faithful. The image conjured up by his choice of descriptive words is of a semi-formed foetus in the womb, like those seen on anti-abortion posters. This is fundamentally false. We are talking here about a microscopic cell! Then there is a need to address the nonsense regarding "the creation for research purposes of human embryos destined to be destroyed in the process". Language is thrown about that is not constructive - deliberately used to project a picture of learned men, the world's leading scientists, behaving like unsupervised 13 year-old boys in a biology class, casually and vindictively "destroying" materials that are difficult to obtain and central to one of life's most important projects.

The fact is that nothing would be destroyed in any research process; cells unsuitable for one procedure would be used for something else. But statements from the Pope are powerful and John Paul II's contribution to this debate can only be seen has negative, based as it is on falsehoods and formed in ignorance or perhaps bias. In the Roman Catholic Church the Pope is "infallible" and what he says cannot be refuted. Some will look at the Pope's words and say, "This can be interpreted in a different way". Bishop J.A. Fiorenza, President of the United States Bishop's Conference, however, leaves everybody in no doubt, having this to say on the official Church website, "...morally unacceptable research that relies on the destruction of some defenceless human beings for the possible benefit of others". Again the Bishop deliberately makes a statement that is wrong. We are not dealing with human beings, never mind defenceless human beings.

This raises an important point about long held Catholic theology; if the Pope is right and a soul goes into a cell when it has been fertilised by sperm, what happens if that cell then splits to become twins? Do twins share a soul? Is another soul put into the other cell that will, after the process described above occurs? The logic of Church leaders and how they arrive at conclusions may be difficult to understand. We are instructed that much of the mysteries requires faith. That it is not our role to question, but to obey. Yet here we are, in this particular instance dealing with life and death, with the previously unimaginable opportunity to treat or cure devastating illnesses. It is now known that when women urinate, they pass certain proteins that coat cells. If we are to accept the religious argument in this debate then the everyday bodily function of urinating must be examined. Where does such pedantry and rigidity of beliefs by the anti campaigners lead us? The Church has effectively turned something good into something bad. It is like arguing for the banning of cameras or video recorders on the grounds that paedophiles might use them to take photographs of vulnerable children, or banning the making of films in case anybody produces porn. Past debates concerned the sin being committed by a woman taking a pill to prevent her conceiving while having sexual relations, or a tablet that gives men an erection. They were condemned by religious leaders. One can accept that members of religions can take instruction on these topics, and understand the perspective of the religionists. After all, they claim the sex act should be engaged in only to procreate. But stem cell research and the promise it holds demands a substantial examination of why anybody would oppose and the unconditional demonstration of a valid reason for claims that their arguments against have substance and validity. Considering the enormity of this issue the protagonists of the anti campaign cannot rely on their old demands for obedience. The stakes here are very high indeed.

IVF was mastered 40 years ago. The Vatican and neo-right in the politically influential Christian born-again movement and many others condemned it. Is it "immoral" for childless couples to seek this treatment? If we take the Church's directive on stem cell development seriously and their opposition to "the creation for research purposes of human embryos destined to be destroyed in the process", then all those whose life has been enhanced as beneficiaries of IVF stand condemned. They have knowingly and willingly participated in a practice which involved the creation for research purposes of human embryos with those surplus to requirements being destroyed. In the Pope's words, it is "evil". According to Roman Catholic law, sin is either formal or material. A formal sin is committed against God by a person "directly intending to participate in an evil act or an evil act of another". Therefore it surely follows that the doctors and scientists have sinned as well. The second type of sin is material. This concerns a person who did "not intend to commit the evil act but may be involved in some of its consequences". The Church's website gives examples relating to abortion which it persistently links to stem cell research for the purpose of undermining further research. Every single scientist and those religious people who support stem cell research assert that abortion has nothing whatsoever to do with either IVF or stem cell therapy. Interestingly, purgatory and limbo and that whole cleansing period that used to be prominent in Church teachings has been off the menu for some years now.

By its own admission the Vatican have "not taken a philosophical position" on the exact nano-second of ensoulment (the entering of a soul into the body). Its present day philosophy relies on the Pope's deliberation in 2001 mentioned earlier. One would imagine that on such an important piece of teaching and a cornerstone for all the rest of doctrine, the Catholic Church would have a definite liturgy and instructive writings. Until now, it has been a simple take it or leave it issue and nothing was ever needed in the way of announcements or written instruction. The discovery of how to isolate cells within other cells was a moment of historical process that massively undermined religious teachings. Yet, rather than adapt, the Christian world leaders dug their heels in, dogmatically refusing to recognise the new findings and move with the times. The history of the Church and organised religion is littered with examples of persecution against scientists and philosophers from Galileo to Marx. Rev. Patrick McCloskey, OFM, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church makes the case against stem cell research on the grounds, "A human life is created but deliberately prevented from reaching its full potential". He seems a straight talking man but his remarks are misleading, deceptive and completely wrong in fact. Bearing in mind he lives in America, Fr McCloskey goes on, "America opposes federal (government) funding because it reflects a fear that such approval might lead to direct federal funding for abortion [not currently available in US. KM]" Of course, cells can be taken from aborted foetuses and here the Catholic Church is on firmer ground. Could it be that Fr McCloskey inadvertently reveals the reasoning for the Church's unsustainable position? If the state funds stem cell research then it could follow that abortion would need to be provided by the state, free at the point of need (the majority of women who terminate pregnancies are from the poorest sections of society), in a safe medical environment? One's personal view on abortion does not matter; the aborted foetus is destroyed anyway. Taking cells from one will not change its determined destination.

Religious argument needs to be examined

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest of the Christian Churches in the world. Its social influence and political power is immense. Hundreds of millions adhere to its doctrines and teachings, taking their lead from the Church's elite, especially the Pope. When the Church becomes involved in laying down the law as in this case, it is paramount that their position is scrutinised, but this must be done in an exacting way, using rationality and honesty. Unfortunately these are not the guiding principles being employed by the leaders here. A magnificent unique opening has presented itself. It is a modern event in every sense and was the stuff of dreams only a few years ago. Traditionally, the Church has trembled at discoveries and processes that potentially put their religious authority under scrutiny. An unparalleled opportunity has presented itself to the human race but rather than recognise this, the Church has resorted to type as it has a propensity to do when their religious teachings and authority are questioned. Their unbending disposition remains as rigid as ever, leaving yet another doltish blot on its history. Flexibility is out of the question. To expand their argument and give solid reasons to oppose this research the Church spokesmen have contrived "facts" and information on three main fronts:

1) The promise of stem cell research is "overstated". But due to pressure from the Church and efforts from other Christian institutions the research in various fields was stopped and set back years. They use this to claim earlier promise has been "overstated".

2) A misrepresentation of embryos and freshly fertilised cells and their contentment that embryonic (or early) stem cells are part-formed babies, made in a laboratory, "helpless human beings" that will be "destroyed" (for destroyed read murdered).

3) Their determined resort to use of the abstract on the question of when a fertilised cell and egg become a new human being and the lies told to supplement their rulings on this.

Lots of Christian Churches operate in a form of democracy, debating and consulting before reaching decisions and then moving forward. The Catholic Church does not do this. It is correct that (at the present time at least) everybody has the right to worship in any way they choose no matter how bizarre it might seem to others. However, the rights of those of us who choose not to believe in religion or in a God must also be protected. What has happened here is that a predominantly scientific matter affecting social policies and health issues has become embroiled in the absolutism of religio-politic morals. It would be appropriate for Roman Catholics to understand that a large number of other religions, including branches of Christianity hold the Catholic religion in utter contempt, openly dismissing their practices, rituals and ceremonies as "evil". Offensive? Undoubtedly. Yet for the purposes of campaigning against stem cell therapy a huge number of the Christian leaders have happily united in an attempt to demonise it. It is comforting to know that a large number of Christians, Jews and Muslims are involved in actively campaigning for research into replacement cell treatment to be allowed. In Iran, a country under strict Islamic law and one which is pilloried by the western politicians and their prostitutes in the press, the scientific community praises Allah for the discoveries they have made in stem cell research. History shows how the combination of religion and politics can be unhealthy with all kinds of ideas pitted against equally baffling theories and stated truths turning into demagogic religious interpretations of right and wrong as against addressing social and human problems. Morals and ethics are not exclusive to religious people although some seem to find this concept hard to grasp. Indeed in my experience it seems these principles are widely lacking in many people who claim to be religious. Everyone is agreed that killing another person is wrong and immoral. The point is, in the scientific research into stem sell therapy this particular ingredient of "killing defenceless human beings" has been added maliciously by the right-wing opposition as they attempt to impede human progress while hoodwinking their followers.

Are we to base social and health policies and restrict the recent fantastic findings of science on the absurd assumption that a few cells are a human being? On one anti stem cell research website, religious people are told, "Don't read. Just vote". This relates to referenda in states in America where there is to be a vote on whether government funding should be made available for research. Stem cell research and the information surrounding it have been badly corrupted. Obviously, religious leaders would prefer it if Christians did not read the information. This highlights the urgent need for public information on this subject. If stem cell research is interrupted or postponed on the principle that just-fertilised eggs have human rights like the rest of us it will delay a brilliant bright new future in history. Will you turn away from that light because you fear the odd shadow cast by it?

May 2007


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