How Not to Save Embryos

Liza Mundy writes in today’s Washington Post that “Children are born every day whose health and well-being are permanently affected by the funding ban for embryo research.”

This isn’t just about the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells. The stem cell restrictions are indirectly resulting in an increase in babies born with health problems such as cerebral palsy.

Here’s how: The popularity of in vitro fertilization and other fertilization treatments has resulted in a dramatic increase in multiple births. But the human womb is designed to carry one baby at a time. So the rise in multiple births has resulted in more babies with health problems.

The number of babies born as triplets, quadruplets or even more rose from about 900 in 1972 to 7,275 in 2004. That same year, the highest number of twins ever were born — 132,000, nearly double the number born in 1980. Not coincidentally, there has also been a rise in premature births, infants born with low birth weights and disorders — such as cerebral palsy — that can occur when a premature baby’s brain is insufficiently developed.

Some of these problems could be eliminated if doctors performing in vitro fertilization could learn more about embryos. But federal law prohibits the research.

In 1996 a law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment took effect prohibiting funding research involving the creation or destruction of embryos. The provision is regularly passed as part of the Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bill. It has become a conservative touchstone.

The upshot is that scientists who receive federal funding — and most good scientists do — cannot use any part of it, even indirectly, to study the embryos that IVF creates so as to learn how to better assess their viability. “There is so much we do not know about the human embryo that we need to,” said scientist James Trimarchi. “The truth is, we really don’t know anything.”

Doctors performing in vitro fertilization routinely implant multiple embryos to ensure at least one will be viable. But if all of them are viable — hello, quadruplets. Further, doctors may be making other mistakes in the handling of the fertilized eggs that could compromise the long-term health of “in vitro” babies.

U.S. scientists acknowledged that there is much they don’t know, including whether embryos are affected by the media in which they are cultured, and the long-term impact of the increasingly invasive lab techniques that IVF now often involves.

These complications arise from a peculiar belief, held by many Christian conservatives, that a human blastocyst has the same inherent value as a baby or child or adult. An aggressive, politicized religious Right has imposed its will on the rest of us, knocking science and sensibility out of the way in their single-minded determination to “protect” embryos. And their “protection” of embryos hurts embryos.

I think one could make a moral argument that we shouldn’t be doing procedures like in vitro fertilization if we’re going to be half-assed about it.

In a related story, Rick Weiss reports in WaPo that researchers think they have found a way to get stem cells with the same properties as embryonic stem cells from tissue other than embryos.

Three teams of scientists said today they had coaxed ordinary mouse skin cells to become what are effectively embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos in the process — an advance that, if it works with human cells, could revolutionize stem cell research and defuse one of the hottest bioethical controversies of the decade.

In work being published online today, the scientists reported two new ways of turning back the biological clocks of skin cells growing in laboratory dishes. Thus rejuvenated, the cells gave rise to daughter cells that were able to become all the parts needed to make a new mouse.

Of course, it could be years before the researchers know whether this will work with humans, or if the resulting cells really do have the same properties of embryonic stem cells. But conservatives have already seized upon this research to argue that scientists don’t need embryos to do stem cell research.

“A human is not a mouse, so a lot more work has to be done,” said Marius Wernig, who led one team with Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.

But opponents of human embryo research said the findings bolster their argument that stem cell science can progress apace without harming human embryos.

“Morally and practically, this new approach appears to be far superior,” said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Seems to me that even if the new process eliminates the need to destroy embryos to get stem cells, we are left with our current blind spots about embryos. And we’ll still have too many premature births, infants born with low birth weights and disorders — such as cerebral palsy — that can occur when a premature baby’s brain is insufficiently developed.

We do seem to have a lot of insufficiently developed brains in this country, don’t we?

5 thoughts on “How Not to Save Embryos

  1. But the human womb is designed to carry one baby at a time

    Not to nit pick, but to point out the difficulty in expressing a concept without endorsing or furthering the cause of the flat-earthers. The human womb functions at its optimum carrying one baby at a time?

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