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A View from the Experts: Pro-lifers say embryo cells not essential; AMA disagrees

Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Janice Crompton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Scientists and medical professionals generally agree stem cell research holds promise for treating disease. It's how those stem cells are derived that split many along ethical lines.

Medical organizations, including the largest in the country -- the American Medical Association -- believe embryonic stem cell research is an essential part of investigating a promising approach to treating disease.

Conversely, pro-life organizations, such as the Colorado-based Focus on Family, say it's not necessary to destroy embryos to further stem cell research.

"We're opposed to embryonic stem cell research, and that's an essential clarification in all of this," said Carrie Gordon Earll, biomedical ethicist at Focus on Family.

There are other options, such as umbilical cord blood, placenta and bone marrow cells, she said, that already have proven therapeutic for patients. Those alternatives are as promising as embryonic stem cells, she said.

"Embryonic stem cells have been sold as almost a silver bullet in curing disease," which is wrong, she said.

Some proponents of the research say: Why not put to good use embryos derived from fertilization clinics that are going to be destroyed anyway?

"That misses the point," Gordon Earll said. "These are humans -- they were created to be children."

She also points to a new trend -- embryonic adoption -- in which couples can adopt embryos, usually from fertility clinics, and bring them to term.

Science has other options to research the viability of stem cells that do not violate medical ethics in place for hundreds of years, she said.

"It is never justified to sacrifice one human being for another," she said.

But the president elect of the AMA said it isn't that simple.

"When do you call several cells an embryo?" said Yank D. Coble Jr., a Jacksonville, Fla. endocrinologist who is expected to take over as president of the organization in June.

The AMA, Coble said, supports stem cell research using embryos from fertility clinics that will be discarded. The organization, he said, does not condone the creation of embryos for research and especially opposes human cloning.

It's not an easy fact, but embryonic stem cells show far more potential than those from adults, or even from placenta or umbilical cord cells, he said.

"They could potentially be of benefit to humankind," he said. "It's an emotional issue, which is understandable and complex."

It's important to begin research as soon as possible, he said, because the issue is in a complicated scientific arena that likely will take years to develop.

"This kind of research takes time to evolve," Coble said. "Some people say it's the single most important medical advance since antibiotics."

The potential role of stem cells in treating such a plethora of diseases is enormous, Coble said. Oversight will be an important component in research.

"Research will be done somewhere, but we want scientific safeguards," he said.

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