Don’t outlaw stem cell research

Bills in the state Legislature are unfounded and would be harmful for Minnesota.

by Julian Switala

Minnesota is in the process of outlawing “human cloning.” While no University of Minnesota researcher currently has the intention of cloning humans, researchers are worried that the bills will outlaw stem cell research as well.

The language of the ban would make somatic cell nuclear transfer âÄî a technique used by scientists to create embryonic stem cells âÄî illegal.

Not only would these bills adversely affect important scientific research in Minnesota, theyâÄôre also based on uninformed accusations that have no grounding in science.

University doctors have already used stem cells to regrow skin, a process with hundreds of potentially lifesaving applications.

The current bills would force entrepreneurs and researchers out of Minnesota because their work would become a criminal offense. In addition to the potential brain drain, there would be a massive loss of business, jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, given that MinnesotaâÄôs economy has a strong foundation in the biomedical field.

It seems as though the Republican-led Legislature will continue to pass pro-business measures such as lowering environmental standards and not increasing taxes for the rich, but logical consistency isnâÄôt typically the modus operandi of politicians.

The University has more than $30 million invested in facilities and faculty dedicated to stem cell research, said Dr. Aaron Friedman, vice president for health sciences and medical school dean at the University. Should the bills be passed, these researchers will have to leave Minnesota.

Even if the bills are signed into law, they will not end stem cell research. Unfortunately for the anti-stem cell crowd, stem cell research is inevitable. Countries such as China, India, Australia and several others in both Europe and Asia have a “permissive” policy regarding stem cell research. A permissive policy allows researchers to engage in therapeutic cloning, also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer.

These countries represent more than 2.7 billion people. This makes the ban on stem cell research even more pointless.

Of course, if the harvesting of stem cells actually constituted murder, then this would be a problem, but it doesnâÄôt.

Trying to change the mind of someone who is ideologically, politically or religiously committed to the idea that life begins at conception is harder than acing the GRE after a long night at SallyâÄôs Saloon and Eatery. Nevertheless, I will try.

No matter where one draws the line for where life begins, that line is going to be arbitrary. The real issue lies in deciding which line is best justified, and in the stem cell debate that means defining “life,” or more specifically, “human life.”

Arguing that life begins at conception is misleading, not only because prior to conception both the sperm and egg cells were alive; they carry out the processes of living organisms. If the human cells capable of creating human life are infinitely sacred, then the use of birth control, wet dreams and masturbation should be felonies.

Also, because males produce millions of more sperm cells than females produce eggs, it would seem to logically follow that males should be valued millions of times more than females. Good thing people donâÄôt carry their beliefs to their logical end.

Additionally, protecting a day-old embryo because it represents the “potential for life” and has its own DNA doesnâÄôt mean itâÄôs a human person.

A person is defined by more than his DNA: upbringing, ambitions, fears, personality, the ability to reason and make informed choices, the physical structures necessary to feel pain and have thoughts and plenty of other morally significant characteristics. Even pigs, cows, and chickens are far more developed than a zygote, yet thereâÄôs apparently no problem mercilessly slaughtering millions of them each year.

Also, a unique genome is not necessary for a human being. Every single identical twin is proof against this, and unique genomes may not even be human (see deadly genetic mutations and cancers).

Moreover, conception is not an instantaneous occurrence or a defined point in time; conception is a complicated process involving the splitting of cells. Consider identical twins: one zygote (apparently one life), but two humans result. Do the twins share the single life at conception from which they resulted or are they separate persons? If theyâÄôre separate persons, then itâÄôs probably wrong not to twin a zygote because the zygote isnâÄôt realizing its full potential twin life. Wait, that also doesnâÄôt make sense.

Finally, even if using an embryo for its cells is wrong, researchers can still acquire embryonic stem cells in nonharmful ways. For instance, umbilical cord blood contains such cells, and retrieving these cells doesnâÄôt harm the embryo or baby in any way. Stem cells can also be had from adult bone marrow, but they arenâÄôt as useful for curing certain ailments and diseases.

At the moment, a coalition of 70 nonprofit organizations and research institutions are urging Gov. Mark Dayton to veto the bills, which he very well might.

For now, the future of Minnesota as a leader in biomedical science is in jeopardy. The political debate at the Capitol should have never gotten as far as it has. Not only will the current legislation negatively affect the University, but it will also harm more human lives than stem cell research ever will.


Julian Switala welcomes comments at [email protected].