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Stem-cell breakthroughs we all can welcome

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 19, 2008

 Another medical miracle has taken place, thanks to stem-cell research. Doctors in Spain report the successful transplant of a tailor-made trachea. The organ came from a donor, but was treated with stem cells taken from the woman who received it. Thanks to that treatment, the surgeon said, "The probability this lady will have a rejection is almost 0%." The same sort of treatment can be used for other organs, making it far easier for doctors to ensure that the recipient's body will not reject the new organ.

The stem cells used in this procedure came from the recipient's bone marrow-- a process that raises no moral objections. In fact, in every single medical advance achieved through stem-cell research to date, the stem cells have been obtained from consenting adults, rather than harvested from doomed human embryos. 

Research using stem cells taken from adult sources has been phenomenally successful, and research using harvest embryos has not yet yielded any practical medical benefits. Some pro-lifers see that fact-- and it is a fact-- as the best argument against embryonic stem-cell research. I'm afraid that's a mistake.

Let's suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the researchers who are harvesting stem cells from embryos suddenly achieve their own breakthrough, producing all sorts of medical benefits.  If pro-lifers had making the argument against embryo research exclusively on practical grounds-- that it didn't produce results-- the ground would be cut out from under them. Yet even if it is successful, medical treatment that entails the deliberate destruction of human embryos is immoral, and should be opposed. Let's base our opposition on solid principle, not on the particular features of a situation that could change.

Nevertheless there is a strong practical argument to be made, to complement that moral argument. Right now adult stem-cell research is producing great results, and embryonic stem-cell research is not. As a practical matter, government funding should go to the research that demonstrably yields fruit. Yet that's not what is happening today. Embryonic stem-cell research still soaks up most of the available government support. That's wrong.

And why does embryo research draw so much funding, when adult stem-cell research has seen so much more success? The answer can be expressed in one word: lobbying.

And why do researchers lobby for support for embryo research? <i>Cui bono?</i>

Think about this: If doctors draw stem cells from your bone marrow, you only pay for the doctors' work. The stem cells are your own; no one else can charge you for them. More to the point, nobody else can patent them. But a line of stem cells drawn from embryos can be patented and sold. The sales price can't  go to the embryos. (They're dead; remember?) So someone else takes the profit. Enough said.

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