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Jewish World Review July 24, 2001 / 4 Menachem-Av, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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The Stem Cell Wars -- THE insistent advocates of embryonic stem cell research are giving many Americans an offer they cannot imagine refusing. The stem cells from human embryos have the potential to turn into any kind of cell or tissue in the body. Therefore, as Joe Palca reported on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," these remarkably adaptable embryonic stem cells "might someday be used to replace nerve cells, heart cells or pancreas cells destroyed or damaged by disease."

Such dread conditions as Alzheimer's, strokes or muscular dystrophy might, in time, be treated by these embryonic stem cells if enough federal research funds will be committed for this research.

What has caused, however, intense controversy about this use of human embryos -- even those extra embryos frozen in fertility clinics and likely to be destroyed -- is illustrated by this definition of an embryo from the 1989 edition of the "American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine": "From the time of conception until the eighth week, the developing baby is known as an embryo."

Such technical scientific names as blastocyst (the embryo four days after fertilization) are not emphasized in that widely known medical reference book's definition. The word, "baby," is at the heart of this debate.

From the very beginning of human life -- as Professor Dianne Irving has written in "When Do Humans Beings Begin?" in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy (1999): "This new human being -- the single-cell human zygote -- is biologically an individual, a living organism -- an individual member of the human species." Or, as Georgetown University bioethicist Patricia King, who is in favor of abortion rights, told the New York Times: "I think the early embryo is not nothing. I don't think of it as just tissue."

In 1996, the National Advisory Bioethics Commission recommended that federal funds be used for embryonic stem cell research, but the commission said clearly that federal funding is "justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research."

Now, as pressure increases -- even from such pro-life advocates as Senator Orrin Hatch -- there is increasing evidence of an alternative that would not require the use of human embryos for this research. On PBS's "Jim Lehrer NewsHour," David Prentice, a professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State University and a founding member of Do No Harm, The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, reported that "scientific evidence does indicate that adult stem cells are a viable alternative.

"They're actually being used now," he said, "to treat human patients for new corneas for restoring sight to the blind. In the animal models and actually the adults themselves, I believe they have shown more success than in any of the embryonic cells -- reversing diabetes in mice, treating Parkinson's spinal cord injury, repairing heart damage. So I do think we have a less morally problematic alternative here."

As for the claim that discarded frozen embryos used in research would have otherwise been destroyed, Professor Prentice noted that "there are embryo adoption options -- the Snowflake program, for example, in California, and others."

And in a recent letter to President Bush, Representative Chris Smith and 13 other House members -- as reported in the Wall Street Journal -- asked the president to meet with three young children that had been "kept in storage, as frozen embryos, until they were adopted by infertile couples."

Moreover, as the Washington Post reported, research for an article in the prestigious journal Science showed that "embryonic stem cells are surprisingly unstable, at least in mice. If the same is true for human embryonic stem cells, researchers said, then scientists may face unexpected challenges as they try to turn the controversial cells into treatments for various degenerative conditions." Part of that finding was deleted from the article in "Science" at the last minute, said the Washington Post, to not give ammunition to opponents of embryonic stem cell research.

Also, the widely respected journal Cell notes: "Several recent reports suggest that there is far more plasticity than previously believed in the developmental potential of many different adult cell types." Adult bone marrow cells, for example, "have tremendous differentiative capacity" as they can turn into "cells of the liver, lung," and other parts of the body.

Both scientific and ethical priorities require federal funding of adult stem cell research that has such potential for the lives of all of us.

CLARIFICATION: In a recent column, I wrote about an edict issued by an Islamic cleric that could be a prelude to a command to murder Muslim scholar Khalid Duran. The Jordan-based cleric, Shaykh Abdul Al-Menem Abu Zant, issued the edict because he believes Mr. Duran vilified Islam in his book about Muslim-Jewish relations. To help explain what was meant by the edict, I contacted Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. While Mr. Hooper and CAIR object to Mr. Duran's book, they say they do not condone the edict that was issued and would condemn any threat made on Mr. Duran's life. There was no intention to imply otherwise.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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