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Stem Cells and Cloning -- The Science Behind the Rhetoric

Out there on the political battlefield of stem cell research and so called cloning, sides have been taken, many rounds fired, and casualties sustained by all combatants. Yet, so much smoke fills the air of public debate that it's almost impossible to think straight. Why is this so? The cause of the confusion is often language.

I am Lupe McCann, a parishioner at St. John's Roman Catholic parish in Riverhead, Long Island, New York. I am a 61-year-old woman who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 17 years ago, at the age of 45. At the time, I was devastated, because my father-in-law suffers from the disease and I worried that my children might also be susceptible to it. I am an advocate and fundraiser on behalf of people with this condition. Scientists, and others among us, know that these processes could potentially help millions who suffer with long-term diseases, not just Parkinsonís disease, but also Alzheimer's, juvenile diabetes, ALS, spinal chord injury, stroke, heart disease, and other devastating conditions. And I am hopeful that medical research will provide us with new remedies whose approval will require neither that I compromise my Catholic pro-life beliefs, nor that I turn my back on the many thousands of fellow PWPs (people with Parkinson's).

Letís look at the definit.ions of four phrases that figure prominently in the confusion. These are:

STEM CELLS Ė These are undifferentiated, primitive cells with the ability to reproduce themselves and to differentiate into specific kinds of cells. If we (or, I should say, the scientists among us) - can understand better how stem cells grow and specialize, we can use them to treat injuries and diseases.

BIOMEDICAL CLONING - Cloning is a quite general term in biology that denotes the creation of multiple, identical copies of a cell. There are many types of cloning, some of which are now commonplace and uncontroversial. Cloning has allowed scientists to develop powerful new drugs and to produce insulin and useful bacteria in the lab. It is one among several new genetic tools that help researchers to accomplish such tasks as tracking biological weapons, identifying criminals, and producing foods more efficiently.

REPRODUCTIVE CLONING - This is the use of cloning technology to create an offspring. It aims to take cells from a person (or sheep, in the case of ďDollyĒ) and use them to create a genetically identical organism. Most people, including myself, find the concept of human reproductive cloning abhorrent and immoral. I think that this kind of research should be banned right away.

THERAPEUTIC CLONING (technically known as SOMATIC CELL NUCLEAR TRANSFER, or SCNT) -This process involves removing the nucleus of an unfertilized egg cell, replacing it with the nucleus of a "somatic cell" (for example, an adult skin, heart, or nerve cell), and then stimulating this cell to divide. Once the cell begins dividing, stem cells can be extracted within one week and used for research. The SCNT cell remains in a laboratory on a petri dish. Note that the process does NOT involve sperm at all, does NOT use a fertilized egg, and does NOT produce an embryo to be implanted in a woman's uterus. It is compatible with the basic tenants of all major religions. And it should not be confused with reproductive cloning, above!

That the words "stem cell" can sometimes evoke strong negative reactions is entirely irrational. The fact is that stem cells are in our own blood, brains, and other parts of our bodies.

Another source of stem cells is from umbilical cord blood that is routinely discarded after a baby is born. Around the nation, cord blood banks are being set up to help doctors and families gather umbilical cords for research.

Then there are the so-called "embryonic stem cells" that are typically harvested from "leftover" embryos created by a couple using in-vitro fertilization. This is the most controversial area but it shouldnít be. Why? Because in the normal course of events, millions of these embryos are routinely destroyed by clinics and hospitals each day. What if some of them could be saved for use in life enhancing, health restoring research?

Which leads us to a key question: Which is more pro-life: to destroy these embryos, which will never become children because they are not transplanted into a woman's womb? Or to give these embryos value by using them to advance life-saving research?

I hope that I have helped to clear up some of the misconceptions about cloning, and to find common ground where pro-life and the pro-choice people can come together in a united effort to heal the devastation and suffering of so many.

What can you do to help?

  • Contact the Parkinsonís Action Network (PAN), the unified education and advocacy voice of the Parkinsonís community. Ask for Laura-Jane Cohen. Ph: (800) 850-4726.
  • Write to your Senator AND your member of Congress and let them know that you support therapeutic cloning. The debate is taking place at a local and state level. You can find sample letters on our website www.parkinsonaction.org.

PAN is committed to ensuring that therapeutic cloning Ė a potentially life-saving therapeutic treatment - is protected at the Federal level. The PDF helps fund the work of the Parkinsonís Action Network.