From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Close Up: Stem cells raise questions about ethics, healing
Fri, 23 Aug 2002 13:32:01 -0500
Aug. 23, 2002 News media contact: Joretta Purdue7(202)546-27227Washington
NOTE: "Close Up" is a regular UMNS feature that takes an in-depth look at
issues of the day. Photographs are available with this report.
A UMNS Report
By Julie K. Buzbee*
Barb Edwards considers herself pro life, but not in the way one might
"I'm pro life - my child's life," she says. "Cells are sitting in dishes
doing nothing and they could help my son," she says, referring to extra
embryos at fertility centers that are no longer needed after a couple
conceives a child through in vitro fertilization.
The cells in question are at the forefront of an international political and
ethical debate about embryonic stem cell research, the most controversial of
several forms of stem cell research. Barb and Mike Edwards, members of
Francis Street First United Methodist Church in St. Joseph, Mo., are
convinced that such studies could help her son, Alex Schriner, 19, who was
paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident Sept. 11, 1999.
Stem cells are the cells that make other cells in the body, and are found in
embryos, fetuses, cord blood cells and adult tissues. Cells are constantly
replaced throughout a person's life. Many of the "adult" stem cells that
replace other cells have been found in bone marrow.
The United Methodist Church has no formal position on research involving
human stem cells. However, the denomination's Board of Church and Society
supports a ban on embryonic stem cell research based on the church's stated
opposition to any procedure that creates waste embryos.
The Edwardses are clear about where they stand.
"Experimentation with blastocysts has shown that they are capable of growing
into almost any kind of tissue alive," Mike Edwards says. "A blastocyst
doesn't even have a gender, it doesn't breathe, it doesn't have brain
A blastocyst is a hollow sphere of cells formed about four days after
fertilization and several cycles of cell division have occurred, according
to the National Institutes of Health. Stem cells can divide indefinitely in
a culture and can give rise to specialized cells, the NIH says. Embryonic
stem cells form the building blocks for the approximately 260 cell types in
The process of extracting stem cells from the blastocyst and growing them
into new cells has been called therapeutic cloning. Some scientists think
these cells could then be used to replace diseased cells and tissues in a
wide range of diseases, according to the Stem Cell Research Foundation,
based in Clarksburg, Md.
Jaydee Hanson, assistant general secretary for public witness and advocacy
of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, doesn't like the term
"I would say that there is no therapeutic cloning," says Hanson, who
testified before Congress last year on stem cell issues. "Some of the
challenge in this is the language. They should call it cloning of human
embryos for research purposes. Our denomination policy is that even if you
develop a therapy, we're still opposed to it."
It's the potential for human life that those cells possess that causes
concern, says William Scott III, chairman of the Bioethics Task Force of the
church board. Scott, a chemistry professor at the University of Mississippi,
also is a United Methodist lay leader who has been affiliated with the
church and society board off and on since 1984.
He leads an 11-member task force that has been charged with developing a
recommendation for churchwide policy about stem cell research. The church
has closely followed genetic and biotechnology issues since 1988; its first
Genetic Science Task Force was formed in 1989. The 2000 General Conference,
the denomination's highest legislative assembly, passed a resolution
opposing human cloning, defining the practice as the intentional production
of genetically identical humans and human embryos.
General Conference also recommended that the Board of Church and Society
form a task force to research the ethics of all kinds of human cloning and
human stem cell research. The Bioethics Task Force will report back to the
board, which will present a recommendation to the General Conference in
The task force is developing a consensus on the "potential of life" issue.
"There seems to be this notion that prior to conception there is no new life
form, at conception there is a potential life form," Scott says. "That's
basically what our position is now."
The task force has met three times and has another session planned in
October. But Scott already has heard some criticism about the committee's
work as far as who has addressed the group. At the introductory meeting, the
task force heard from people in other denominations, including Roman
Catholic and Southern Baptist, about their stance on stem cell research.
"We're trying to listen and pray and think and meditate all at the same
time," Scott says.
The second meeting focused on in vitro fertilization. Infertile couples use
the method of assisted reproduction to conceive children by having the
woman's eggs removed from an ovary and combined with the man's sperm in a
dish. A few of the embryos later are placed in her uterus with hopes that
one will implant and she will become pregnant.
At the meeting, a debate arose around the number of excess embryos the in
vitro process produces, Scott says, and the task force is wondering if
regulations are needed to limit embryo production to smaller numbers.
Inconsistent laws in 35 states apply to assisted reproduction, task force
members were told by Nanette Elster, assistant professor at the Institute
for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law at the University of Louisville (Ky.)
School of Medicine.
Discussion of the status of embryos continued at the task force's third
meeting, with consideration given to the ethics of research using surplus
embryos from the in vitro fertilization processes of the past, embryos being
produced for fertility treatments currently and embryos created specifically
for research. Mindful of the need to produce a recommendation, the group
debated the dangers the process holds for the mother and embryos as well as
questions such as how to reduce or eliminate waste embryos.
As one who already supported in vitro fertilization and now has twin
grandchildren thanks to his daughter's successful use of the method, John
Swomley thinks excess embryos should be used for research.
"The idea that it is better to destroy an embryo than to use it for
research, it's absurd," the 86-year-old activist says in an interview at his
home in Kansas City, Mo. The author of Compulsory Pregnancy: The War Against
American Women, Swomley is an ordained United Methodist pastor and professor
emeritus of Christian ethics at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas
Debating a moratorium
Celia Kozlowski, a lifetime United Methodist and member of the Bethesda
(Md.) United Methodist Church, has studied stem cell research at length and
strongly favors research continuing. She wrote a petition to that effect,
gathering 50 signatures from her congregation. A copy was sent to President
"The most obvious way to respect life is to heal ... with our best medical
techniques," she says. "Heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer,
Alzheimer's, Parkinson's -- these diseases take a huge toll in suffering and
loss. To put a 5-day-old clump of cells on a moral par with the lives of
millions of people seems highly unconsidered ... and biblically uninformed,"
she says, adding that Jesus placed a major emphasis on healing.
"Without government support and oversight, morally unacceptable practices
may be privately adopted," Kozlowski wrote in her petition. "And then,
should embryonic stem cells yield powerful new therapies, these would very
likely be privately patented and prohibitively expensive to the poor and
The petition was Kozlowski's response to action taken by Jim Winkler, top
staff executive of the Board of Church and Society. In a letter dated July
17, 2001, he wrote to President George Bush, also a United Methodist, asking
him to keep "an extended moratorium" on human embryo stem cell research.
Bush later announced that federal funding for research on embryonic stem
cells would be limited to 64 lines that the president said already existed.
Winkler praised the president's action.
"The president's decision is one of caution; it provides a space to explore
the potential of embryonic stem cell research without destroying human
embryos. At the same time, he promised $250 million for adult and other
non-embryonic stem cell research, a decision that we support," Winkler has
said in United Methodist publications.
Hanson also gave the president good marks for his decision and his Aug. 9,
2001, speech about stem cell research. Bush helped educate people about the
issue, Hanson says.
In the speech, Bush talked about the value of human life. "I also believe
human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. I worry about a culture that
devalues life, and believe as your president I have an important obligation
to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the
world," he says.
Kozlowski's petition says Winkler's letter to Bush rests on three premises,
which she disputes: that embryonic stem cell research requires the creation
of embryos specifically for their destruction in research; that there exists
only "speculation that stem cell research may possibly someday provide some
treatments"; and that adult stem cells already show feasibility for
successfully treating the diseases that could be treated with embryonic stem
Kozlowski says only cells that would be discarded were to be the original
source of cells for research. "These daughter cells are no longer capable of
development into a fetus, any more than adult stem cells are," she says.
Scott disagrees. "For her to conclude that is not necessarily true," he
says, noting that adult stem cells can be cloned. "That's why the government
is so upset with Richard Seed. Because it can be done," he says. Seed, a
scientist who has attended a Chicago-area United Methodist church, announced
in 1998 his intention to work on cloning human beings, several months after
Scottish scientists announced that they had cloned a sheep.
With support from President Bush, the Republican-led House of
Representatives passed a ban last year on all human cloning, including
therapeutic cloning. Discussion in the Senate reached an impasse this
summer, when neither side of the debate had enough votes to prevail.
Amid this, 40 Nobel laureates issued a joint statement saying Bush's call to
ban human cloning "would have a chilling effect on all scientific research
in the United States." At the request of France and Germany, the United
Nations has called a special session to negotiate a ban on human cloning for
Using adult stem cells
While President Bush opposes the creation of new embryonic cell lines, he
says he supports research using adult stem cells and stem cells derived from
The Bioethics Task Force is studying the issues around adult stem cell
research. "We listened to people who are doing the work, and they seem to
think they are making progress in that area (adult stem cells)," Scott says.
"A lot of this research is done on proprietary property; a lot will not be
published because they don't want their secret out," he says of the research
"I think that God made cells much more 'plastic,' more easily manipulated,
than we have thought," Hanson says. "If adult and cord blood stem cells will
do what embryonic stem cells can, then we should not proceed with using
embryonic stem cells."
Adult stem cells are promising, say Catherine Verfaillie and others at the
Stem Cell Institute at the University of Minnesota. Their research, reported
in the media last winter, shows adult bone marrow cells can be coaxed into
making specialized cells including bone, cartilage, fat and skeletal muscle.
"The debate about stem cells has centered on whether 'adult' stems are as
effective as embryonic stem cells in the search for therapies," Hanson
notes. He cites the Verfaillie study as the most promising in its finding
that adult stem cell lines can be kept going for more than 80 doublings.
"The cells can be made to differentiate, at single cell level, into bone and
cartilage cells, skeletal muscle cells, fat cells, bone marrow stroma and
the endothelial cells (internal linings) of the internal organs."
The advantage to using adult stem cells taken from a patient, he says, lies
in the cells' ability to "be transplanted directly without genetic
modification, pretreatments or developing cloned embryos."
Swomley and others share the fear that the United States will fall behind in
stem cell research. "If it isn't done in this country, it'll be done abroad
and modern science will move over there rather than here and the U.S. is
backward on this," Swomley says.
"If Congress were to ban this line of research, it would set back medical
research in this country by years," Ronald M. Green, director of the Ethics
Institute at Dartmouth College and chair of the Religion Department, writes
in the May issue of Religious Studies AAR Edition News.
Others are concerned about the moral implications of the research, and the
hazards of moving ahead too fast.
The Rev. Rosetta Ross, a United Methodist and member of the Bioethics Task
Force, sees value in society slowing down to consider all sides of the
issue, such as who will receive health care. Ross, who teaches Christian
social ethics at United Seminary in Minneapolis, supports the moratorium
that the church has requested for that reason.
"I think it's valuable for the church to present perspectives in regards to
the least, and sometimes calling for moratoriums, proceeding with caution,
holding perspectives is valuable and important to public debate," Ross says.
Says Hanson: "Science tells us what we can do, but it doesn't tell us
whether we should do it or not."
"There's so much happening so fast," says Henry Knight III, professor of
evangelism at Saint Paul and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.
"What we're faced with now is just a small sampling of what five or 10
years from now we are going to be facing. We as a nation and as a world
haven't had a chance to work this out and it's too important not to take the
time to understand the implications. Once you've gone down the road, it's
too late. You're beginning to build a world ... without knowing where you're
Believing the health of their son at stake, the Edwardses feel people don't
understand their pain and need for immediate help. Slowing down research is
like a slap in the face to them.
"I don't see anything except a stem cell miracle," Barb Edwards says. "I
remember when he got hurt I said, 'It's a miracle that he lived,' because
everyone said, 'That's a fatality accident.' It's a miracle there was no
brain damage because ... they said it looked like internal bleeding. I got
those two miracles. I want the third one. Good things come in threes."
Whatever the task force recommends, the church most likely will continue to
contend with genetic and biotechnical issues. But Scott wants to resolve the
stem cell questions as the task force has been asked to do.
"What I don't want to do is something that happens in the (United) Methodist
Church quite often, and that is (create) another task force that looks at
the same thing," he says. "If the church drags its feet on this issue ...
the scientific community is going to leave us in the dust."
However, deciding something and revising it later is part of life, Knight
"I think it is right, even if United Methodists develop interim positions,
it's one of the things we need to keep revisiting because things keep
changing," he says. "What's driving both sides is the value of human life.
There's something right about that."
# # #
*Buzbee is a journalist residing in St. Joseph, Mo.
United Methodist News Service
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