Juan Masia, SJ (Sophia University)
"Repairing organs" or "regenerating tissues" have become recently key words in medical care, as well as signs of new bioethical problems. The issues concerning the therapeutic uses of stem cells are especially delicate. These cells are called stem cells because the ability they have to reproduce and to produce a variety of differentiated cells, which can develop into several kinds of tissues and organs. Since more than thirty years ago research was going on about stem cells. But in the year 1998 a new milestone was reached, namely, the discovery of how to produce stem cells out of human embryos.

Since isolating stem cells requires the destruction of human embryos, a hot debate has been going on in the U.S.A. for the past couple of years. On August 9, 2001, President Bush decided to permit federal funding of embryonic stem (ES) cell research, but using only those stem cell lines that have been already obtained.

In Japan the law against cloning, passed in the Diet in November 1999, includes a clause about the conditions under which the research on stem cells can be carried on.

* In Japan, in November 2000, the Diet approved a project of law about the cloning technologies. Based on this law the Ministry of Education and Science issued on September 25th, 2001, the guidelines about the way to obtain and to use for research human stem cells. In the explanation about how to interpret these guidelines there is mention about the future possibility of using cloning technology in order to make a cloned embryo from which to obtain ES cells with the same DNA of the patient (which would help to avoid the problem of immunologic rejection). Actually on November 26, 2001, the evening issue of the Mainichi Shinbun published the news that for the first time a researcher had succeeded in the USA to make a cloned embryo.
The Pontifical Academy of Life issued (August 25, 2000) a declaration both against the use of living human embryos for the preparation of stem cells and against the production of human embryos by cloning technology, in order to obtain stem cells. This declaration recommends the use of adult stem cells to attain the same goals through a method morally acceptable. (The text of this Declaration can be read in Internet, Vatican HP and in Japanese translation in the Shingaku Digest, July 2001).

There is an ambiguity in this new technology. On the one hand research on and use of embryos are intended to help people and relieve suffering, but it is also driven by gains for researchers, clinics and pharmaceutical companies. There are tremendous incentives for researchers to investigate medical uses of stem cells so as to sell their knowledge to for-profit pharmaceutical companies. We can foresee the "escalation": the use of leftover embryos may turn later on into permission to expand the embryo supply by using cloning technology in order to produce human embryos for research.

Sure, many possible clinical benefits are expected from the promises of the stem cells researchers. But embryo research is not the only way to obtain those benefits. Other alternatives have been proposed. For instance, to use non-embryonic adult stem cells. Anyhow, when we realize the speed at which the market interests are moving, the question we cannot avoid is: Where are we going to stop the race toward a "Brave New World"? How far is going to reach the commercialization of life?

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Stem cells research confront us with the question about the status of the early embryo. The answers given to this question come from two extreme positions, like in the debate about abortion. Some people say that the early embryo is nothing more than a clump of cells. Some people say that it is already a human being with dignity and rights. In fact we cannot say strictly speaking that the early embryo is already a human being, but we must admit that it is neither a mere thing nor an object of property. Even if the 5 day embryo (in scientific terms, a blastocist, in the stage before implantation in the uterus) cannot have the status of a human being, it is on the way to become a human being. It is not just merely a material product. We cannot say that destroying early embryos is murder, but its destruction poses a moral problem, because the early embryo is a developing form of human life, which deserves respect, not only because of what it is, but also because of what it can be.

But the question of the beginning of human individual life need not be the main focus of this debate. It is important that the public take a more active and informed interest in the standards now being set by the government under the influence of scientists and investors with the help of political pressure. There is a need to set limits to the strong influence of economic reasons in bio-ethical decisions.

There is too much trust in technology, and not enough solidarity. L. S. Cahill has written: "Broader and more careful public participation in decision-making about the social role of biotechnology is absolutely necessary to preserve medicine's traditional goals of healing and humanizing life in an age when medical and economic institutions are increasingly intertwined.
(America magazine, 2001-III-26).

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