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updated 8/9/01

Calvin Prof Studies Stem Cell Debate

After months of deliberations, President Bush will announce his decision tonight (August 9) on whether to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Watching with interest will be Calvin College professor Hessel Bouma III.

Already a year and a half ago Bouma (left) was thinking and writing about the issue. In fact, he wrote a piece for the Winter 2000 American Scientific Affiliation Bioethics Commission newsletter called simply: "Current Issue: Embryonic Stem Cells."

In that piece Bouma, who was then and is still Chair of the Bioethics Commission, outlined the history of scientific research on embryonic stem cells, noting that at the end of 1999 Science magazine had called embryonic stem cell research the "breakthrough of the year." He went on to outline, too, the ethical dilemmas of embryonic stem cell research.

Now, almost two years later, the discussions on embryonic stem cell research has moved from the scientific journals to the nation's popular media. But for medical ethicists such as Bouma the issues remain the same.

"The primary stumbling block," he says, "is whether embryos and fetuses possess a moral standing which merits protection. Embryonic stem cell research requires that embryos or fetuses be destroyed. If they have no moral standing than sacrificing them for their stem cells presents no moral problems. Not does intentionally creating them as a source of stem cells. But, if they have the same moral standing as newborns, children or adults than destroying them, even to benefit others, is wrong."

The current debate, notes Bouma, centers on whether or not to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Currently such work is allowed if it's privately funded. Interestingly, says Bouma, both the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and the National Institutes of Health have recommended that research on already created embryonic stem cells be federally funded, but that federal funds not be used to create further embryonic stem cells.

Both the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and the National Institutes of Health also have recommended that embryos should not be created simply to provide a source for embryonic stem cells (as has happened recently in privately run labs such as the Jones Institute in Norfolk, Virginia).

Several factors complicate the debate notes Bouma. First, adult stem cells also are the subject of promising research and they can be used without ethical or moral dilemma. Second, the work on embryonic stem cells may be the subject of unrealistic expectations.

"What no one is saying very publicly," says Bouma, "is that this (embryonic stem cell research) is likely to require many years, perhaps even decades, of careful and exhausting research. There's no quick fix here for diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons."

Bouma says the current debate should also cause a closer examination of the practices of many fertility clinics which he says "irresponsibly produce excess human embryos." If embryonic stem cell research is permitted to proceed, he says, he would favor that the decision be coupled with government regulation of fertitlity clinics which would limit the number of human embryos produced in one cycle. He also would like to see more comprehensive health insurance for in vitro fertilization, thus reducing the number of embryos couples feel compelled to create. And he would favor incentives for adoption-like procedures of frozen embryos.

Bouma notes that currently couples with "excess" embryos can do one of five things: use them in a future reproductive cycle, give them up for "adoption," leave them frozen indefinitely, allow them to be used for research or dispose of them.

"I do not see a significant moral difference," he says, "between the last three options."

Links recommended by Hessel Bouma III . . .

National Bioethics Advisory Commission Report (PDF file, 1999)

National Institutes of Health Index Page on Stem Cell Research

Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity

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Contact Phil de Haan
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