Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Harvard v the Vatican

ND Batra
The Statesman

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

~ TS Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

When South Korean Scientist Dr Hwang Woo Suk admitted last December to have faked the result of his research regarding the creation of stem cell lines from cloned human embryos, it seemed a terrible setback to one of the most transformative and promising fields of medicine.
But last week’s announcement that Harvard Stem Cell Institute will begin doing research using Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer process to create specific cell lines from cloned human embryos has once again raised hopes for millions of people suffering from incurable diseases.
Harvard research will be diseases specific; for example, the nucleus of a skin cell of a diabetic patient will be inserted into an unfertilised donor egg, from which the nucleus has already been removed. The newly engineered composite egg will be nurtured on a petri dish where it will develop into an early embryo from which embryonic stem cell lines would be developed and guided into becoming healthy insulin producing pancreatic islet cells. These would replace the diseased ones, for example, in a child suffering from juvenile diabetes.
What would you not do to make your child disease free and healthy? But somewhere in the process, life begins. That has been an ethical dilemma for those who believe that human life is sacred at every stage, even on a petri dish.The late pope John Paul II, for example, admonished President George W Bush on a visit to the Vatican saying that a “free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death.”
The late pontiff was referring to proposals for the creation of embryonic stem cells for research purposes, which hold the promise to lead to a cure for diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and much more. The pope himself was afflicted with Parkinson’s, one of the millions of sufferers of the debilitating disease. The promises of embryonic stem cell research for healing incurable diseases and rejuvenating life are so great that it appears inhuman to shut the door on it.
Many people wondered why the Vatican would deny the gift of stem cell miracle to the suffering humanity. Suffering is at the heart of Christianity, especially Catholicism. Suffering creates compassion and humanises us. Respect for life must begin at the beginning, and the beginning of life could be on a petri dish or the womb. Pope John Paul II warned: “how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide…”
Would Pope John Paul II have refused the stem cell-based cure for his Parkinson’s, if it were available in his times? The Vatican, nonetheless, is not totally opposed to stem cell research; it favours the research based on adult stems cells, though the results of such a research at present are not promising. Embryonic stem cells have the potential of growing any specific stem cell, such as bone or brain stem cell, needed to heal the body. Cloning embryonic stem cells takes one more step toward creating life to heal life.
The Vatican’s view about the sanctity of life is a sharp condemnation of the practice of foeticide, especially the killing of female foetuses, a widespread practice in some parts of South Asia. It is difficult to surmise what happens to the conscience of a woman who learns upon pre-natal screening that she is carrying a female foetus and decides to abort it, especially now when abortion technology enables a woman to abort in a jiffy. That’s why many Americans have not been able to ignore the late pope’s warning that the destruction of embryos to extract stem cells, even when the purpose is to fight diseases and reduce human suffering, would dehumanise us.
Regardless of the views of the Vatican or the policy of the Bush administration to deny funding embryonic stem cell research with federal money, stem cell research, as the Harvard announcement shows, is unstoppable for the simple reason that the perceived health benefits not only in terms of fighting incurable diseases but also prolonging healthy life are immeasurable.
Stem cell revolution is as momentous as was the splitting of the atom; therefore, it needs protocols and safeguards to harness its benefits without the coarsening of our conscience.It requires a fundamental change in our thinking, a paradigm shift as significant as when Galileo turned his telescope toward the heavens ~ away from the Vatican.
Now that that the mighty Harvard has put its moral authority, reputation, knowledge and wisdom at stake in pursuit of health and happiness for mankind, let us hope the marketplace, the ultimate test of everything in the USA, does not coarsen life in the process.

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