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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of July 25 - July 31, 2001

  Opinion Column

Navigating in a 
world of grays

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

"And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." So said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore., arguing on the senate floor that life begins with the presence of a soul.

When senators, in debating federal financing of stem cell research, begin to parse the text of the Book of Genesis, it seems clear we have arrived at a fundamental question. And while the political junkies hold that President Bush is only upping the political ante by delaying his decision, I think the president is wise enough to realize he faces an ethical decision not a political one. Further, it is an ethical decision predicated on understanding some fairly involved science.

When an egg and sperm come together they form a fertilized egg called a zygote. The zygote then divides into two cells. Those two cells then divide so that there are now four cells. The four divide again and so on. After eight rounds of cell division there are 256 cells. The cells are considered "stem cells" up to the point at which there are 200 to 300 of them. The key feature of these cells is that they are undifferentiated, meaning they have not developed the specific characteristics of any one of the 200 cell types in the human body—types such as skin cells, heart-tissue cells or blood cells. They are like clay; they can become anything.

And therein lies their value to researchers. Studying the way undifferentiated cells become differentiated holds a tremendous promise for helping us understand and eventually treat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer's diseases, cancer, diabetes and organ damage. The research is an attempt at breaking molecular and cellular biology down to its most fundamental problem.

What is the source for these stem cells? Generally—but not always and I’ll come back to this—they are isolated from frozen embryos scheduled to be destroyed. These are embryos no longer wanted by infertile couples who created them through in vitro fertilization.

The question becomes, are we, as Richard Doerflinger of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has said we are, "treating life merely as an instrument for others"?

I don’t think so, because I don’t see this collection of cells—also referred to as a blastula—as life itself, but rather as the potential for life.

It is true that a cluster of undifferentiated cells has two sets of genes in place and the building blocks of life, in general, ready to go. By logical extension, one could put sperm and an egg in separate test tubes and consider that potential life as well. Two sets of genes are there, the building block cells are there. But is it life?

I think the relevant moment of life is when the embryo begins to show individuation. Cells need to show differentiation, genes need to begin to be expressed, not just present within the same cell membrane or petri dish or laboratory. I would hazard to say that individuality is what makes us human.

And so, as far as this very restricted ethical question goes, I think we can work to help millions of people currently suffering from various diseases without compromising life per se. Perhaps the only provision I would suggest to the president is that couples be able to stipulate whether or not their discarded embryos go to this end.

Unfortunately, the subject is rife with ever more complicated questions to resolve. Scientists at a private lab in Virginia, for example, have recently announced that they would begin creating embryos themselves, purely for the purpose of extracting the stem cells.

I’m not sure I can articulate why, for me, this seems to be on the other side of the ethical fence. Perhaps the difference is that the embryos are to be consciously created for destruction. Or perhaps it has to do with a sense that the decision to create an embryo that will ultimately become a life should always remain one made by the biological parents. If, for a variety of reasons, they choose not to proceed with the process, they should be able to determine what happens to those eggs and sperm, which are, after all, theirs.

Yet another complication comes about from a technique called therapeutic cloning. Scientists at a lab in Massachusetts are attempting to insert a donor cell—not sperm—into a different donor egg that has had its nucleus removed. If the experiment is successful, the egg will "reprogram" the genes of the inserted cell so that it will direct the development of an embryo. Stem cells would be isolated from the resulting embryo.

I’m not even sure how we begin to think about this one—an embryo without fertilization—but the fact remains we had better think about it. The science is in place, and there are people out there who will try to push the limits faster than we can set them.

Which raises another reason the president should fund the research: pragmatism. As William Safire wrote in a New York Times editorial, "The stem-cell genie is out of the research bottle." The only way to ever control where this research goes is through money. Federal funds have gone a long way in shaping social policy on other fronts such as racial, sexual and religious discrimination. That influence could play a role here too.

The ugly fact of the matter is that there are no clean answers when it comes to these decisions. We are forced to navigate through a world of judgments, a world where sea, sky and land are just differing shades of gray. Our instinct in dealing with them is be perfectly principled, but that doesn’t always lead us down the most ethical path. It is tempting to take the fixed and simple principles we’ve lived by in the past and extend them as far as we can see into the future. But that can be like staring down a set of train rails. Eventually the rails in your vision come together and distinctions become hard to make.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.