A short time ago I went with some relatives on a tour of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California. An impressive white architectural marvel set up on a hill, the building was as impressive inside as it was out. Our tour consisted of an hour’s introduction by one of the PhD scientists (complete with live-action microscopic imagery) followed by a tour of the Institute, whose halls are lined by large pieces of photographic art created by the lab scientists themselves of their work.
The artwork was marvelous, larger-than-life frames of microscopic cells typically seen only by the scientific community. Two large pictures I especially liked—a “star” cell or astrocyte, a type of cell in the central nervous system that regulates neuronal activity (it looks like a sun with solar flares licking its surface); and a type of insulin-secreting cell from the pancreas that looked like the planet Jupiter.
I left the tour extremely impressed but also somewhat dismayed, as I knew the foundation of all this research being performed was the mighty human embryonic stem cell…the focus of much controversy. These are early-stage embryonic cells which have not yet specified, or designated to become what they will eventually be in the newly growing human body. In the first 4 days of life, these cells await their genetic instructions telling them they should become skin, bone, nerve, heart, muscle, liver, etc. In the meantime, during those first 4 days, they are a blank slate.
The Buck Institute, like all such labs, gain their embryonic stem cells from In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) clinics, where too many embryos (think fertilized eggs) are created in the hopes that one will implant successfully in the mother’s womb and grow into a baby. The leftover embryos are then stored for possible future use, disposed of, or donated for research.
My trouble with this process is this. Certainly, left in storage, these fertilized eggs have no chance of growing into a human being. Yet the potential is there. Among the tens of thousands of stored embryos across the U.S., there is quite possibly another Mozart or Einstein, or some other boy- or girl-genius, who could make the world a more beautiful place or solve the world’s problems, if only given a chance at life (those crucial nine months).
This is the argument for embryonic stem cell research (as well as abortion proponents)—if the fertilized egg is not viable outside the womb, it is not considered a child or even a potential child, just a tiny developing mass of tissue. I understand that, and admittedly it’s not an easy point to dismiss. But here’s where I have a problem. This process of turning embryonic stem cells over to research labs (authorized by “parents” hoping that their fertilized eggs will aid a breakthrough in disease research and ultimately a cure) too quickly turns from altruism into a power struggle involving politics or money, or both.
Follow this thread. According to the Buck Institute less than 40% of funding comes from the government. The rest comes from the original Buck Trust, grants and private donors. Who would donate to this organization? People interested in the research; people motivated because a loved one died of an age-related disease (Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, etc.) and who don’t want to see others suffer; people motivated because they THEMSELVES don’t want to suffer from an age-related disease, and hope that their charitable donation will help find a cure for whatever might ail them down the line.
Cynical? No, reality. Behind every dollar donated to any organization, there is a motivation. Having worked at numerous nonprofits (a couple controversial), I know. Unfortunately, with any new health break-through, insurance is unlikely to cover the new procedure or treatment for many years, if even a lifetime. So who receives it? Certainly not the common man, but the man (or woman) with enough money to pay out of pocket. It’s a prime example of Joan Baez’s lyrics: If livin’ were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live, and the poor would die.
Okay maybe that is a touch cynical, but I didn’t write the lyrics. And it is the truth.
Now consider this: Let’s say the same couple who makes a charitable donation to a research lab learns that their own child has an incurable life-threatening disease. Wouldn’t that same mom or dad cry, “Why can’t it be me? If I could switch places with my son/daughter, I would do it in a heartbeat!” In fact, wouldn’t many of us over a certain age be willing to give up our lives to save our children, or even someone else’s child? That is genuine altruism, and I believe it’s within the reach of each one of us, given the opportunity.
I know the rhetoric—this isn’t a child, it’s a mass of tissue, just a few hundred cells. I don’t know…for out of such cells came you, and came me.
What to do? I don’t blame the scientific community for taking advantage of embryos that otherwise would just “sit around.” Nor do I blame the scientists and doctors in the In Vitro Fertilization process, who are simply meeting the needs of would-be parents longing for a child.
Be that as it may, moral ethics need to come into play. Also during our tour of the Buck Institute, I learned that researchers have learned how to actually create stem cells…those wondrous cells that can be coaxed into becoming whatever cell a scientist wants it to become. “WOW…that’s fantastic! So why do scientists still use embryonic stem cells?” I said. “Because they are the gold standard,” came the reply.
My mind cannot comprehend this. What does a “gold standard” mean, when a potential human life is at stake? We humans make a lot of decisions for good, but draw the line when a moral or ethical boundary is about to be crossed. How is this any different?
You can bet your bottom dollar, if the market fades for embryonic stem cells, scientists and doctors in those In Vitro clinics will figure out a way to “have” to bond fewer eggs and sperm in order to get their desired results. Right now there is no…what’s the word? Motivation.