Friday, January 05, 2007

Stem Cell Basics, Part I: Introduction

It is said that the topic of "stem cells" is searched on the internet more frequently than any other topic. I don't know how one would know that for certain, but it seems like a reasonable supposition. I do know that the topic is broad, complex, and profoundly confusing; I also know that it will once again be in the news as our new Congress has vowed to make stem cell research - specifically, embryonic stem cell research - a front line item. This is important. Forty years ago, the Supreme Court outlawed anti-contraception laws in our land with the 1965 ruling, Griswold vs. the State of Connecticut. The ruling was a carefully constructed component in the decades-long drama to legalize abortion, and it was a move which opened the way for the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision. These two Supreme Court decisions changed our civilization's conception of what a human person is. Prior to Griswold, contraception was illegal because the corpus of Christian teaching, both Catholic and Protestant, said it was, and our civilization was one which recognized that the laws of man should not contradict the laws of God. Griswold overturned that belief. Prior to Roe, our civilization believed that a biological human being and a human person were one and the same, and that all biological human beings were subject to the protection of the laws of our land as human persons. Roe overturned that belief by uncoupling the legal relationship between "biological human being" and "legal person", because unborn biological human beings are not persons under current American law.

U.S. abortion laws are now among the most liberal on the planet. Most countries, and all European countries, have numerous restrictions on abortion (most Americans are unaware of this). These restrictions are related to gestational age - it is generally illegal to abort babies beyond a certain gestational age, although the exact age varies from country to country - and there usually must be some stated reason for the abortion, even though the list of acceptable reasons is pretty broad. The point is, there are limitations on abortion in Europe and most other countries, one has to go to places like China and Russia to find abortion as freely and easily accessible as it is here at home. In the U.S., one can abort a full term baby for no reason whatsoever up until the moment the baby's head is fully out of the cervix. Since we now believe that not all biological human beings are persons, it should come as no great surprise to find that many of the more muddle-headed among us now believe that some non-human entities - dolphins, for example, or maybe chimps or computers - should be accorded the legal rights of personhood. We now reside in a civilization which accepts what is nearly infanticide, will soon accept outright infanticide, and is seriously considering conferring legal personhood upon animals and even machines. And folks say the Catholic Church is backwards for opposing this lunacy? Regardless, the result of all this has been the transformation of the American civilization into something our grandparents or great grandparents would not recognize.

Stem cells are the next big step in this transformation. What we as a society conclude regarding embryonic stem cell research will have greater impact on what our civilization looks like in the future than any other medical/moral item you can name, even bigger than the anti-contraception and pro-abortion laws. Why? Because the technology of stem cell creation and it's outgrowth - human technology manufacturing platforms - will invest so many aspects of medicine that the time will come where the only way an individual can avoid being tainted with it will be to avoid medical treatment altogether. Further, the creation of embryos for the purpose of disassembling them for their stem cells will lead to cloning, first therapeutic cloning, then fetal farming, and later, recreational cloning. There is no doubt in my mind, this will happen, as surely as night follows the day. The Catholic must be informed, and be smart, about what faces us.

The topic of stem cells is broad and complex. We can break it into bite sized chunks over the next several weeks, looking at various aspects. The outline will go something like this.

1. What are stem cells? Adult vs. embryonic stem cells.
2. Where do adult stem cells come from, and how are they used?
3. Where do embryonic stem cells come from, and how are they used?
4. In vitro fertilization.
5. Cloning.
6. Patent laws and other legal matters.

This outline is subject to change, but I thought it a good starting point. I will also develop a glossary of commonly used terms, developed from standard references. Obviously, all of this material is available on the web in various formats ranging from really infantile presentations to impenetrable dissertations. My point is to try to summarize it all, briefly but not too briefly, to get us all "on the same sheet of music" (to use a hackneyed Navy phrase) so that we can all be reasonably equipped to go out and face the conductors. Like abortion and contraception, embryonic stem cells and their progeny will soon touch many aspects of our medical and moral lives. We need to be smart about this stuff now.


nanagigi said...

I wish I had seen this before this morning. I taught on life issues last Sunday in RCIA. I ask that you let me know when your analysis is completed. I am looking for a better way to communicate the facts. Most of my teaching on embyonic stem cell research comes from Fr. Tad Pacholczyk and while I think I understand the concepts, I found it difficult to communicate to the candidates. You are correct that most people are totally misinformed abaout this issue.

Linda Thayer said...

Thank you -- I am looking forward to the facts -- For the average person, may I suggest visuals on the basic of biology -- I find they are the most helpful -- Linda Thayer