Dr. Willke on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

J.C. Willke, M.D.

I Oppose "Embryonic" Stem Cell Research

Much has been said and written about “stem cell” research. Unfortunately, a number of biologic inaccuracies continue to be promulgated and, as a result, have colored decision making for many people. The first thing to distinguish is the fact that ethically we can experiment on human tissue, but we should not experiment on human beings. Accordingly, it is perfectly ethical to proceed with any and all type of stem cell research as long as this is human tissue, but it is completely unethical to do embryonic stem cell research, which of its very nature necessitates the killing of a living human embryo to obtain that stem cell.

To understand this we must first review early developmental biology. Human life begins at the union of sperm and ovum. During that first day, this is properly termed a “fertilized egg.” However, this single–celled human body divides, divides, and divides again, so that nearing the end of the first week this embryo, now called a “blastocyst,” numbers several hundred cells. To obtain an embryonic stem cell, the researcher must cut open this embryo, thereby killing him or her and extracting stem cells.

After the first day, a number of names apply to various developmental stages of the same living human, fertilized egg or zygote (a single cell), a blastocyst (many cells), embryo, fetus, infant, child, adolescent, etc. During the first week, this tiny new human floats freely down his or her mother's tube, dividing and sub–dividing as the journey is made. At about one week of life, he or she plants within the nutrient lining of the woman's uterus. In about three more days, having sent roots into the wall of the uterus, this new human sends a chemical hormonal message into the mother's blood stream and this stops her menstrual period. Four days later, the embryonic heart begins to beat and three weeks after that, brain waves are measurable. The biologic fact is that from day one, inside and then outside of the uterus, this is one continuous, uninterrupted period of growth and development. It is impossible to draw a line in time and to say that before this time, this was not a living human, and after this, it is. This is, in fact, a living human at the first cell stage and remains so until the old man dies. Accordingly, killing this living human embryo at day four or five, at week four or five or at year four or five is, in fact, killing a living human.

At the first cell stage, you were everything you are today. You were already male or female. You were alive, not dead. You were certainly human as you had 46 human chromosomes (you were not a carrot or a rabbit); and most importantly, you were complete. For nothing has been added to the single cell whom you once were, from then until today, nothing except food and oxygen. You were all there then, and to terminate your life at any stage of that can be called nothing other than killing.

Note that Senator Mack in his Wall Street Journal column repeats the biologic error seen almost everywhere. He speaks constantly of stem cells from “fertilized eggs.” That stage lasts only one day. You cannot take a stem cell from a fertilized egg which itself is only one cell. Rather what he is advocating is killing a human embryo and extracting stem cells from the inside of that new living human. He attempts to distinguish between “a frozen fertilized egg” and a fetus. Actually the only difference is location, size, age and degree of development as the one is just a bit younger than the other.

I can understand why a pro–abortion Senator Jeffords or Chafee would favor destructive embryonic stem cell research, for they are strongly pro–abortion and have demonstrated many times their support for killing babies in the womb. What I don't understand is pro–life Senator Orin Hatch, who “insisted” that a frozen embryo was not the equivalent of an embryo or a fetus in the womb. I've known Senator Hatch well for 20 years. He's pro–life, but on this he has his facts dead wrong, and it's a tragedy that he would lend his undoubted prestige to destructive stem cell research by repeating an obvious biologic falsehood.

To say that these tiny humans will be “discarded” and not used and therefore should be “used” is a fallacious argument. Why then don't we use the tissues of a criminal who has been legally executed? Why did we universally condemn the Nazi doctors who used Jewish subjects because they were going to be killed anyway? Why is it that we cannot cannibalize a person's body who was killed in an accident? It's because we have respected the human body, an absolute necessity in a civilized nation.

But are there other options? Certainly, there are. There have been marvelous and well–publicized advances in the last year. We now have scientific data showing that stem cells can be obtained from fat. They can be obtained from cord blood. They can be obtained from neural tissue, from bone marrow, muscle, placental, and skin cells. We have reports of bone marrow stem cells being changed into liver cells. We have a report of skin cells being changed into heart cells. We have a report of cord blood promising to possibly create neural cells.

Almost every month we receive reports of new advances in this field. One of the latest is from Congressman Ron Lewis (R–KY), in a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson. He urges him to consider a “tobacco based adult stem cell alternative to embryonic stem cell research.” He notes the leadership of plant protein assisted stem cell research, which has identified the genes in proteins that cause self–renewal of adult stem cells. He points to the fact that certain plant proteins found in tobacco can stimulate such changes. And much more. This is yet the latest revelation. Rest assured there is much more to come.

There is a possibility, perhaps a probability that adult stem cells may function more efficiently and more safely than embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are increasingly being shown to have a similar and perhaps an identical capacity to become cells of other types. They can be taken from the patient himself, then re–injected, thus eliminating the problem of immune rejection, which is a real problem in using tissues from another human, even from an embryonic human. There is no question but that there is probably an immense potential of use for stem cells. But this increasingly is being shown to not be exclusive for embryonic stem cells. In fact, adult stem cells may prove to be superior because they don't suffer the problem of rejection.

As for public opinion polls, as usual the wording of the question leads the answer. When the poll speaks of “fertilized eggs” and doesn't mention the destruction of human embryos, you get one kind of an answer. In comparison, a recent poll by International Communications Research of over 1,000 adults was worded more objectively. Its question was as follows: “Stem cells are the basic cells from which all of a person's tissues and organs develop. Congress is considering whether to provide federal funding for experiments using stem cells from human embryos. The live embryos would be destroyed in their first week of development to obtain these cells. Do you support or oppose using your federal tax dollars for such experiments?” The results were: Support — 24%, Opposed — 70%, Don't Know and Refused — 6%. Further, only 18% supported “all stem cell research” while 67% supported “only adult stem cell research.”

Finally, can embryonic stem cells be said positively to be able to cure diseases that stem cells from other ethical sources would be unable to? No one can make that statement. Let us by all means pursue aggressive research with stem cells but there are some bridges that we, in a civilized society, should not cross. We should not deliberately kill one living human to possibly benefit another. Use stem cells? Yes, but don't kill to get them.

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