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Stem cell wordplay

October 24, 2005

IF SCIENCE COULD CREATE embryonic stem cells without harming embryos, then just about everyone would be happy. Those who believe that life begins at conception would have no objection. The federal government would be able to fund promising research instead of limiting scientists to existing cell lines that are mostly tainted. And U.S. scientists could compete on an equal basis with others around the world.

Alas, the two research teams that last week announced different ways to produce stem cells may have advanced science, but they did not address the moral debate. Instead, they used wordplay -- they're not actually "destroying an embryo" -- in a political attempt to squeeze their way around it.

An MIT researcher would create embryos that cannot attach to a uterus and thus would have no chance of developing into a baby. Perhaps in the literal sense, this doesn't destroy an embryo. It simply dooms it. The ethical improvement is hard to see.

The other method, developed by Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., would wait until the fertilized egg divides into eight cells, then remove one cell. (This method is already used for genetic testing for patients using in vitro fertilization.) The other seven cells would continue to develop, but the removed cell could be used for research and genetic testing. That may quell concerns about interfering with an embryo's development for the sake of research, but it doesn't address the objection that a single cell has the potential to develop into an embryo.

Both of these methods are ingenious. At the same time, however, they represent the triumph of politics over science. What stem cell research needs most is the simple recognition of some basic facts: that stem cells hold the promise of relieving suffering and saving lives; that the research uses embryonic cells at the very earliest stages, and that few Americans believe that life begins at this stage.

The minority who feel otherwise cannot stop the research. It's already going on, unfettered, in other nations; in fact, South Korean stem cell scientists last week offered to help their U.S. colleagues with their research. It is a generous offer. But more than anything, it shows that the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in this area -- and will fall even further behind unless it changes its policies on such research.

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