Pro-lifers say recent stem cell breakthrough ethically tainted

WASHINGTON (BP)--Scientists used cells from aborted babies in recently reported research that has been hailed as a breakthrough in the ethical development of embryonic-like stem cells.

Pro-life advocates decried the abortion connection, but bioethicists said the newly successful technique could be utilized without the employment of such cells and thereby be considered ethical.

Research teams in Wisconsin and Japan reported in November they had converted adult skin cells in human beings into the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells. Pro-lifers hailed the development because the scientists had found a way to produce the stem cells with seemingly the most potential for providing therapies for debilitating afflictions while avoiding the destruction of human embryos.

Children of God for Life, however, reported Jan. 8 the researchers had used cells from aborted fetal cell lines to produce a virus to reprogram the adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells. The organization, which monitors stem cell research and the presence of aborted fetal cells in medical products, said the Wisconsin team also utilized material from embryonic stem cells in its research.

"Using aborted fetal and embryonic stem cells from deliberately destroyed human beings is certainly not any kind of moral victory," said Debi Vinnedge, director of Children of God for Life.

Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell said, "The principle is clear: Science should never perform an evil act -- or contribute to evil acts -- in order to achieve good ends. So, deriving therapies from electively aborted fetuses ethically taints the discovery.

"Science that serves the common good must take the moral high ground and resist complicity with evil," said Mitchell, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in suburban Chicago and a consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Pro-life bioethicist David Prentice said the technique would be ethical if researchers avoided the use of tainted cells. That could be in the offing, he said.

"Scientists will tend to use the easiest, cheapest tools at hand, and what they're used to, not always the best tools," said Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, according to

Prentice said the "criticism is about their starting material," not the reprogramming method. "So, they could have used adult or newborn cells exclusively, both for virus production and for starting material for the experiment, and there would have been no criticism," he told LifeNews.

"Frankly, given that scientists want to get away from viruses altogether, this will soon be a moot point," Prentice said, according to LifeNews. "My sources indicate that probably within 12 months we will see non-viral (and also possibly non-DNA) tools used for the reprogramming."

Stem cells are the body's master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, giving hope for the development of cures for a variety of diseases and other ailments.

Embryonic stem cells are considered "pluripotent," meaning they can develop into all of the different cell types in the body. Adult stem cells, also referred to as non-embryonic stem cells, typically have been regarded as "multipotent," meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body's cell types.

The extraction of stem cells from an embryo, however, results in the destruction of the tiny human being.

The newly successful research, known as "somatic cell reprogramming," shows that adult cells can become "pluripotent." The cells produced by reprogramming are called "induced pluripotent stem" (iPS) cells.

Despite their potential, embryonic stem cells have yet to treat any diseases in human beings and have been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals. The use of stem cells from non-embryonic sources -– such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow –- has produced treatments for at least 73 human ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research.

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