Lecture focuses on history, ethics of stem cell research

Naomi Scott

Embryonic stem cell research holds major economic promise, and states around the country are taking notice, Alta Charo said in a speech about stem cells Wednesday in Coffman Union.

“States are in a mad rush to not lose out on what is being touted as the greatest economic opportunity of the 21st century,” said Charo, a law and bioethics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Charo was the main speaker at “From Stem Cells to Jail Cells,” a lecture on the history of the legal and ethical debates surrounding embryonic stem cell research, sponsored by the Joint Degree Program in Law, Health and the Life Sciences and the Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment and the Life Sciences.

Charo described the tumultuous history of the embryonic stem-cell debate and called the issue “a subject of so much heated debate.”

In 1980, then-President Ronald Reagan did not appoint anyone to an ethics advisory board that was supposed to approve embryonic stem cell research proposals passed by the National Institutes of Health, Charo said.

Meanwhile, the development of infertility services in the 1980s allowed embryos to be isolated outside the body, she said.

“For the first time, we now had embryos outside of the body,” she said. “The woman’s interest was no longer bodily.”

During the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, Charo said, an interest in research on fetal tissue developed. But Reagan and Bush imposed a suspension on fetal tissue research on aborted fetuses. They said that by using the tissue, the research becomes complicit in the decision to have an abortion.

But Charo said transplanting the hearts from murder victims into patients who need new hearts is not seen as condoning murder.

Former President Bill Clinton advocated for a return to embryonic stem cell research but did not want to fund research that created new embryos, Charo said.

In August 2001, embryonic stem cell proponents saw the first support for stem cell funding in a long time, Charo said, although it contained “significant limitations.” At that time, President George W. Bush allowed federally financed research on lines created before August 2001.

John Wagner, director of clinical research at the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at the University of Minnesota, said new stem cell lines need to be developed because existing lines acquire genetic defects over time.

R. Timothy Mulcahy, University of Minnesota vice president for research, talked about the politicization of science and said approximately 75 percent of the U.S. population supports stem cell research.

“If it’s not a political issue, why are 25 percent of the voices having such a profound impact?” he said.

Mulcahy said he blames politics for creating false expectations in the public about the promises of stem cell research. Contrary to those expectations, researchers cannot cure all the diseases they want in the near future, he said.

Embryonic stem cell research is “moral and ethical” but needs more oversight so scientists adhere to the same set of standards in their research, Mulcahy said.

First-year medical student Samantha Pace attended the event and said that she became interested in the ethics and value of human life while studying philosophy at the University of Minnesota.

She called Charo’s point about not being able to define the beginning of life biologically at a distinct stage “well-taken.”

Pace said people who believe science is truth are buying into a “huge fallacy.”

“Science is not truth,” Pace said. “Science is an evolving body of knowledge.”