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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stem Cells, again

Yesterday, March 9, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order that would expand federally-funded embryonic stem cell research in the United States. (Michigan, Missouri, and California had already passed laws allowing state funding of this kind.)

President Bush had allowed such research, but only on a limited number of stem cell lines, that were already in existence when he signed his Executive Order, in 2001. Additional stem cell lines now in existence seem to include some that would be superior for this type of research.

Executive Orders are binding on the Federal Government, but may be overturned by a succeeding Executive Order, by the same, or a different president. Such an order normally does not try to undo acts by Congress. Acts of Congress can only be overturned by the Supreme Court, declaring that a law is unconstitutional, or by a subsequent Act by Congress.

Two recent articles, written for non-scientists and non-lawyers, are an introduction to stem cells, in Newsday, and a discussion of the likely effects of President Obama's action, in the Los Angeles Times. I'm guessing that neither of these articles will be available for more than a few weeks, as is typically true of newspaper articles, on any subject. The Wikipedia article on the subject is here.

There are those who object to the use of embryonic stem cells, because they believe that an early embryo is the moral equivalent of a baby, or an adult human being. Most people who oppose abortion also oppose stem cell research, for much the same reasons. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch is one person who opposes abortion, but favors embryonic stem cell research. He believes that the potential benefits of human embryonic stem cell research make support for such research a pro-life issue.

The new Executive Order does not allow creation of a new embryonic stem cell line from an embryo, using Federal research money. That is prohibited by law. President Obama says that he opposes human cloning, the production of a human being by taking DNA from an existing person, and inserting such DNA into an embryonic cell, after removing the DNA from that cell. (We are not certain if human cloning, all the way to birth, is even possible.) That is also prohibited by law.

The new Order does make it possible to do research on many embryonic stem cell lines that weren't available when President Bush signed his Executive Order in 2001.

We allow the production of embryos, for in vitro fertilization, in the US. (Not everyone believes that we should allow this.) A great many such embryos are never used for this purpose, and are either discarded, or frozen. Many people believe that, since these embryos are never going to be implanted, and allowed to develop, that there is nothing immoral in using them in research that will potentially help others. Many other people believe that using such embryos is immoral, and equivalent to murder. The Bible does not speak directly to this issue, although there are many people who are convinced that the Bible makes embryos the moral equivalent of adults. (There are a few other Bible-believing Christians who are not so convinced*, or who believe that use of embryos that are not going to be implanted is a moral act.) The Catholic Church, as a whole, is opposed to abortion, and to embryonic stem cell research, as I understand it.
*Exodus 21 may support the idea that an embryo is not morally equivalent to a baby, or an adult, but that interpretation is controversial. See footnote to verse 22.

There are persons who believe that research should be conducted on no humans but adults not under coercion, who can give informed consent to the use of their body in research, and that even medical research on children, unless it is designed to help a condition that a particular child has, and that could lead to treatment that could help that child, is immoral. These thinkers are not necessarily against abortion. Such persons would be against any research on human embryos, unless designed to help that particular embryo. Not everyone agrees.

Thanks for reading.


Julana said...

Obama's doing too much, too fast. Some days I feel like the author who titled a book "Dude, Who Stole My Country?"

Martin LaBar said...

He surely is trying to get a lot done.