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Stem Cell Research: What do you think?

posted by Scot McKnight

The news media are all reporting a significant shift from Bush to Obama on stem cell research. How do you think about this issue? What studies do you consider important on this one? Do you think there is too much of a “slippery slope” here or do you think there is too much of a slippery slope apologetic against what Obama proposes?



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stephanie

posted March 10, 2009 at 6:19 am


I don’t believe in slippery slopes :-) Without reservation I think this is wonderful news for science and wonderful for the people we know whose lives could be greatly improved by it. Obama is approving of stem cell research and disapproving of cloning. There is no slippery slope.



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:mic

posted March 10, 2009 at 6:28 am


This is a major disappointment, but one that I expected would happen. So I am not surprised by the announcement. In reality, this has more to do with politics than with science and/or ethics.
To date, science has not accomplished anything of promise on this line which makes this study necessary. And it is poor science to suggest that embryonic stem cells are the only way forward (or a more significant one), when our best and richest source for stem cells remains to be cord-blood, which accompanies every birth – making it unnecessary to use human embryos. But we never hear of this from scientists who are more concerned with their social agenda and political power than empirical evidence.
Why? Because it seems that there is a natural moral tendency to remove as many ethical restraints from ourselves as possible. The human would rather do whatever we choose to do than have an external morality upon us. But how often does this work out? Science has never been on a good path when it works free from ethics and morality.
President GW Bush did NOT stop stem cell research, but he did ensure that it moved forward in a more ethically responsible manner by stopping federal funding of these lines. This has had a ripple effect which has caused many scientists to reconsider their way forward and think within ethical parameters. All without the premise of religion being thrust upon them. Now the premises of science are being thrust upon people of religious belief – hardly seems fair (though I’ll not waste time lamenting another expected move). I am particularly sad that my tax dollars are now going to support something that I find to be so immoral and unethical, and I suppose many would join me.



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Rick

posted March 10, 2009 at 7:00 am


I’ll first admit my gross ignorance in the science of this matter. So, if my basic facts are incorrect, someone please correct me. If my assumption is correct, we hit, tumbled and slid down that slippery slope when we began to take eggs from women, fertilize them outside the womb, freeze them, and then not use them all (except to provide a single mother of six with 8 more children–where’s the morality in that?). IF this is the major source of the stem cell lines and IF the soul is implanted at the moment of conception (unknowable, unprovable, I realize), then anyone who has undergone in vitro has created all kinds of little souls (or potential souls), then left them in suspended animation. How many of those who’ve contributed to these frozen populations are Christian men and women who know decry this next procedure on THEIR children’s lives?



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Jeremiah Daniels

posted March 10, 2009 at 7:00 am


Contrast that Adult Stem Cells have no controversy around them yet have tangible results in medicine …
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adult_stem_cell
Why are we pumping Federal funding into something hardly proven.



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RJS

posted March 10, 2009 at 7:09 am


Jeremiah,
All research money (well, most) is pumped into things “hardly proven.” Otherwise it wouldn’t be research. NIH is actually more conservative in this regard than most funding agencies – requiring more “preliminary data” than most. Removing the stem cell ban allows investigators to propose investigations that develop new stem cell lines.
Whether this is good or bad gets back to ethical definitions that define when human life begins (potentiality or actuality) – a conversation worth having.



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Kim in North Carolina

posted March 10, 2009 at 7:11 am


Even the smallest of children when asked will tell you that killing a baby inside a woman’s belly is WRONG. Now Obama has condoned this action by taking the baby’s body and mutulating it down for stem cell research. Who in their right mind can say this is the right thing to do? There are many other human tissues that can be used for stem cell research. I am appauled that money from my paycheck each week from the federal government will be used for this research. I am a diabetic of 40 years and I am now 45. If a cure were going to happen I would have known by now. I will not even get into the facts on this subject, but I am horror-struck on the rhetoric regarding this topic.
What is going to stop the next generation from cloning humans from a baby fetus.
Wake up America, God is not pleased with our actions on this one.



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Clint

posted March 10, 2009 at 8:41 am


Is destroying an embryo in it’s fourth month of development for scientific purposes any different than destroying an embryo in the 26th year of it’s development for the sake of science.
Who knows? Perhaps the mind that would find a cure for breast cancer or liver cancer was aborted back in 1984?



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T

posted March 10, 2009 at 9:01 am


What it tells me, in combination with Obama’s other actions to date, is that he is as thoroughly to one side of the bioethics spectrum as one can be concerning the beginning of life. So, it’s not as much a slope I see as a slant of the man in the office, and him using that office to bring others along in that same slant. And that is hugely disappointing.



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Dan

posted March 10, 2009 at 9:04 am


Those who don’t believe in slippery slopes are just not paying attention. We’ve been on a slippery slope for the last 35 years. Everything pro-life groups predicted would result from Roe v. Wade back in 1973 has happened. From legalized abortion has come late term abortions. From late term abortions has come legalized euthanasia. From legalized euthanasia has come forced starvation of persons not terminally ill. We now have partial birth abortion which is delivering a child 80% of the way then inserting a sharp instrument in it’s skull to kill the child before delivering the head. We also have live birth abortion which amounts to delivering a child out of the mother’s womb alive and setting it aside to expire in a linen closet.
Fetal stem cell research with billions of dollars of government funds attached will without question lead to the intentional creation of embryos to be used in scientific research and the creation of human embryos destined for destruction to benefit those already living. We are on the slippery slope – picking up speed and I seriously doubt anyone can slow the momentum. As Francis Schaeffer once said regarding the West, “I no longer pray for justice, I pray only for mercy.”



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Mason

posted March 10, 2009 at 9:28 am


Stem cell research is a hard one. I think there is potential there for cures that would be of great benefit to many.
However, I?m not enough of a scientist to say whether embryonic stem cells are better than other stem cells, and most of the people saying their opinion seem to have an agenda rather than just reporting the facts.
When conservatives who oppose it say there is absolutely no proof they are better/as good it seems suspect, and I?d rather they stuck to the moral argument.
One difficulty for me is in-vitro. I don?t, at first glace, recoil form the idea of invitro fertilization. But then there are a number of embryos which have no shot at life.
So is it really any different to use them for stem cells when they will just be disposed of anyway? I don?t like the idea of either use, but one will happen and we only protest the former, where is the consistency?



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DPack

posted March 10, 2009 at 9:50 am


Dan is right. We are already accelerating down a slippery slope that started with Roe v. Wade.
I think that, unfortunately, both sides are missing the boat in arguing about this issue. Proponents often appeal to emotion by raising the possibility that embryonic stem cell research will provide a cure for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or nerve repair (a la Christopher Reeve). Opponents respond by arguing that the same results may be achieved with adult stem cells or cord blood cells. Proponents argue that these embryos already exist and will likely be destroyed anyway, so why not utilize them for “good.”
This is all beside the point.
The issue is MORALITY. And the morality question hinges upon the question of what is an embryo? and when does “life” begin? and for that matter what constitutes a human life? The average proponent, conditioned by our culture of abortion on demand, automatically presumes that an embryo is just a lump of tissue, not a person. The average opponent, conditioned by the pro-life movement, presumes that life begins at conception, whether inside a fallopian tube or a Petri dish. The debate flies back and forth above the level of these two incompatible presumptions. We’re arguing about apples and oranges.
Unfortunately, proponents hear any call for debate about the beginning of life as right-wing, fundamentalist, conservative Christian dogma. Opponents hear any arguments from the other side as anti-religious/anti-Christian attacks.
We have to bring the debate back down to the level of the fundamental questions. But how? These are more difficult questions, arguing about them requires a lot of hard work, and these arguments don’t generate the pithy sound bites that play well on Fox News or CNN.
I don’t have any answers. Do you?



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Steve

posted March 10, 2009 at 10:03 am


The most frustrating part of the announcement was the way in which the ethical concerns of those opponents of this line of research were dismissed as ‘anti-science.’
I completely understand the position of research advocates, but I would assume that they at least perceive the ethical ambiguity (if not the outright immorality) of such action.
To deny this places Obama in the position of demonizing his opponents, something I had thought he would be loathe to do…



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dopderbeck

posted March 10, 2009 at 10:51 am


I generally agree with those here who have voiced deep concerns about the Obama administration’s decision and about the couching of that decision as being compelled by “science.”
It’s horrifying to me that all concerns about the moral status of human embryos are brushed aside as unscientific. Yes, such moral issues are unscientific, because they are outside the competence of science. This means they cannot be dismissed by reference to “science.” Obviously, the science of embryology must inform the moral and ethical debate — it can tell us about genetics, stages of physical development, prospects for research, etc. — but it cannot determine the moral and ethical debate unless one is a thorough-going materialist (and even then, materialism as a philosophical posture can’t justify itself on purely materialist grounds).



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Eric Richey

posted March 10, 2009 at 10:58 am


I echo Steve’s comments(#12). The rhetoric out of the administration and other advocates of lifting the federal ban is incredibly harsh and dismissive of any notion of legitimate ethical concern. One report I read through YahooNews quoted a researcher who celebrated the lifting of “these silly restrictions.”
The slippery slope is in full effect – it seems there is almost no stopping the train of “progress” in the fields of science and technology.



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Jon

posted March 10, 2009 at 12:25 pm


I believe that federal funding usually kills innovation, and should not be used in the biotech field. When federal money is involved, corporations go straight for it because it is easy, guaranteed, and overpaying. Whether it’s abortion clinics, adult or embryonic stem cells, vehicle contracts, or infrastructure, the goverment should step back and allow necessity be the father of invention rather than money.
If people were able to keep more of their own money, invest it in biotechs they find relevant, ethical (depending on their own definition), and well run, this mess would be sorted out by itself. Nobody could create a need or reaction against the free market because the public has a voice in the free market. I suspect embyonic stem cells would be less pursued than adult stem cells simply because they are not proven. Once a breakthrough comes in the private sector, the rewards would follow. Why do we preemptively reward behavior that has no successful precedent when it comes to federal money, but take away from proven methods? The problem is far larger than biotech.
The fuel crisis is another example. The market eventually fixed itself, and fuel is a reasonable cost now. We know where to get more, but instead we completely unbalanced the agricultural ecosystem to pursue a fuel that is essentially creating world hunger (corn for fuel vs corn for food). In countries like Brazil, where sugarcane produces a whole lot of sugar per plant, ethanol makes sense. In america, which creates a huge portion of the worlds food, where we don’t have sugra rich plants, it doesn’t. Nuclear, clean coal, more drilling (optional), natural gas, renewable energy (though not as reliable), etc. are all better options than changing the food market completely by offering federal funding/ forcing changes by the government.
Affirmative action is another example. Why should a family have to give 51 percent of a company to the woman in the family just to gain govt contracts (which are pursued because the govt overpays)? We are starting with the feds rather than using them to serve the people.



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Jon

posted March 10, 2009 at 12:32 pm


Another issue, not brought up in this post, is that this is exactly politics as usual. The major legislations Obama has put in place have been incredibly party-specific. Whether abortion, government spending (which was not a stimulus package, but a spending package because it was not designed to actually stimulate the economy but provide some jobs and infrastructure through govt spending –any economic boost is a secondary not primary result), the iraq issue (which I’m thankful he is ending), guantanomo bay (which is a neither party issue and is also good, depending on how they follow up) or now stem cell research, Obama has come down on the far left, has not realistically consulted across the aisle, has not compromised (Which makes Harry Reid feel like a bill is fair), and has not followed anything other than the party line.
At least be honest and admit it is political, not polite, politics



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Aaron

posted March 10, 2009 at 12:49 pm


Similarly to what RJS (#5) said, I think the real ethical issue here is when human life begins. Personally, I find it hard to accept that a group of a few hundred undifferentiated cells constitutes a human being. I would tie an embryo’s humanity to the development of the brain. Otherwise, you’d have to argue that an embryo has some other quality, such as a soul, that makes it human. I don’t think that Scripture definitively claims that ensoulment takes place at conception. If you claim that an embryo is human, on what basis do you make that claim?



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Erik Leafblad

posted March 10, 2009 at 12:57 pm


Echoing what a few others on here have already said, my biggest disappointment has been the political rhetoric around these decisions. I’m concerned about a type of scientism that seems lurking in pronouncements of restoring science to its rightful place in this matter. The fact is that this is a complex ethical, religious, sociological, and yes, scientific, issue. To claim, in the name of science, it is not is just as ideological as claiming in the name of religion (or ethics) that science should have no voice the matter. When one sphere of inquiry is utilized to silence the voices of other spheres, then we have ideology.
But perhaps I’m missing something.



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Derek Leman

posted March 10, 2009 at 1:10 pm


Science and medicine need the pressure of ethical restraints. I remember this every time I visit the Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial) in Jerusalem. Science and medicine can easily become clinically dissociated from the human realities of experimentation. Obama’s choice is inexcusable. I wanted to be open to this man, but I have been disappointed with nearly every decision he has made thus far. I believe time will show either a changed Obama or the failure of his policies.



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ChrisB

posted March 10, 2009 at 1:47 pm


“How do you think about this issue?”
That we’ve just been asked to provide tax payer funding for human experimentation.
“What studies do you consider important on this one?”
The moral question is far more important than the scientific question, but thus far (this list is a little old) the only thing we’ve been able to do with embryonic stem cells is cause cancer — with the one exception being something that was also done with non-embryonic stem cells.
I know many here object to slippery slope arguments, but this one cannot be denied: If we ever find something useful to do with embryonic stem cells, we will need a bigger source of them.
This one is less certain but certainly plausible: We will have set a precident that scientific research to benefit “the many” justifies human experimentation. Where would scientists look next? Infants? The old? The mentally deficient?
Our society continues to walk down the path of seeing only those human lives as valuable that we define as having value. History has shown us how bad that can get.
I’d like to hear from some of our “pro-life” Obama voters. You getting buyer’s remorse yet? Do you see this as a necessary step in reducing the number of abortions or is this just an unfortunate side effect?



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Randy

posted March 10, 2009 at 2:04 pm


I fear that the stem-cell debate has sucked all the oxygen out of the room and left none for other significant discussions. I am concerned, like Rick (#3) that the affluence of our evangelical subculture has led our churches, pastors and parishoners to so worship family and children that Christian couples have been led to create embryos for In-Vitro and other methods that has created many embryos that are, in effect, left in limbo.
OTOH: I found it disturbing that Obama presented his policy as entirely putting politics before science, because these kinds of decisions are outside science and are necessarily political.
Randy



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Jason

posted March 10, 2009 at 2:45 pm


See Justin Taylor’s blog. He lists several articles.



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Rick in Texas

posted March 10, 2009 at 6:16 pm


Disclaimer: i have a son who is insulin-dependent. There is no cure for his condition. So “I have a dog in this fight”
It is unfortunate that so few people are willing to consider that a perspective can be found that would allow for some uses of some embryonic stem cells. The issue is typically all or nothing.
I believe a carefully articulated perspective can be developed that would allow some research using some embryonic stem cells. I found Bush’s total ban less than satisfying, and I find an anything goes kind of policy equally unsatisfying.



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Bill

posted March 10, 2009 at 8:48 pm


Is all life scacred? What is a life? I find few Christian Pro Life believers who have a consisent world view. An embryo is scared but what about the life of a condemed killer, innocent women and children in Darfur or Iraq. People will give me Old Testament verses but nothing from the New. Tax dollars to kill American lives or foreign lives in a contrived war is fine. When was the last time a church group spent dollars for adult stem cell research? I don’t have the answers, but I have trouble throwing stones. When I was a boy to be a good Christian all you had to do was not smoke, drink, or screw, all I have to do now to make it to heaven is to hate gays, abortion, and stem cell research. Whatever happenened to love one another and relieve suffering and pain.



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ChrisB

posted March 10, 2009 at 10:06 pm


Rick said:
“some uses of some embryonic stem cells”
Let’s rephrase: “Why can’t we have some research on human beings?” Because they’re human beings! When your son was an embryo, was he less important?
“I found Bush’s total ban less than satisfying”
There never was a “total ban.” Bush’s policy was to allow federal funds to be used only on specific embryonic stem cell lines. Private research was completely unfettered, as was state-funded research.
Wherever you’re getting your information, stop.



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DPack

posted March 10, 2009 at 11:05 pm


@Aaron (#17)
I agree that the key to resolving the morality of this issue is how we define a human being (since most everyone can agree that a human being has an intrinsic right to life).
So is an embryo human? Absolutely, without question. It was formed from a human sperm and a human egg and so has 23 pairs of chromosomes. It is not canine or bovine or equine. The embryos we’re talking about are human.
Is a human embryo a human BEING? Well, an embryo is not half a human being or 1% of a human being. An embryo is 100% of what a human being should be at that stage of development.
Is a human embryo a PERSON? Here’s where it gets really subjective. You suggest that development of the brain is the defining feature. Others argue similarly that an embryo becomes a person with the beginning of neurological function. Still others will argue that an embryo/fetus does not become a person until it takes its first breath. But why? How does one justify his choice of where to draw that line?
It seems to me that any line we draw is inherently arbitrary. And the Bible is silent about the timing of “ensoulment.” So in my opinion the only non-arbitrary option is to assume that personhood begins at conception.



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RJS

posted March 10, 2009 at 11:19 pm


Ensoulment at conception is not without its own conundrums. Does this mean that identical twins share the same soul? After all – at some time after conception the embryo splits into two and forms two individuals.



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Carl

posted March 11, 2009 at 12:00 am


These are certainly complex issues, both scientifically and theologically. I would have to concur with several of the comments above that suggest the most troubling aspect of this is the attempt to separate science from ethics. In his speech, President Obama said “It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/obama/2009/03/09/president-obamas-speech-on-stem-cell-executive-order.html?PageNr=1
I realize what he says might be understood differently by a supporter than someone who is suspicious, but the language here seems to suggest that scientific “facts” trump all. I agree that scientific data should not be concealed or distorted to serve a political agenda. Maybe it’s in how you define ideology. But, I read this speech and hear the sense that we should listen to the scientists over others and that whatever the majority opinion is, that’s what we should go with.
And there are certainly other moral issues to be considered such as the storing of embryos, etc.
Slippery slope? Hard call there, but as I read the material, many of the pro-ESR arguments focus solely on the possible benefits that seem to lean towards an argument whereby the ends justifies the means.
Finally, what do you think of this line by our president?
“The race is always with us – the urgent work of giving substance to hope and answering those many bedside prayers, of seeking a day when words like “terminal” and “incurable” are finally retired from our vocabulary. ”
That time will come, I just think it will be a carpenter, not a scientist that brings it.



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Brian in NZ

posted March 11, 2009 at 3:01 am


In line with Aaron (#17), I wonder when life actually begins. I have difficulty with it starting at conception, because a fertilised egg is not a viable life until it is implanted in the uterus. After that point, all the cell needs is food and time to become a viable baby. Or does a fetus become a human being when it can survive outside the womb?
I have no medical training, so I may be way wrong here, but I think I’ve also heard that an egg can be fertilised, but still naturally pass from the body without implantation. Does this mean that nature is guilty of abortions?



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stephanie in new zealand

posted March 11, 2009 at 3:18 am


Aren’t these embryos artificially created outside a human body? I don’t see how these artificially created embryos could ever have become anybody’s son, but they could save someone’s son. Just my opinion.



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RJS

posted March 11, 2009 at 6:31 am


stephanie,
In vitro fertilization uses embryos artificially created outside a human body implanted in a woman’s womb – and many of these have become somebody’s son or daughter.



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stephanie in new zealand

posted March 11, 2009 at 7:06 am


RJS: I know that. But the bits and pieces (so to speak unscientifically) came from the parents or donors. Where do the bits and pieces come from to create the embryos for stem cell research? Aren’t they already ‘discarded’ (so to speak)?



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RJS

posted March 11, 2009 at 7:13 am


Some are proposing to use embryos not used in IVF – embryos that would be discarded. Then the question becomes – should these be used or should they be “adopted” and implanted (there are groups that try to do this). If the embryo is a “person” then simply discarding, or using it for research seems inappropriate.
I am not convinced that the few cell embryo is a person – it has the potential to become a person. But this is a sticky question, when “potential” becomes “actual.”



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steph

posted March 11, 2009 at 7:21 am


Thank you RJS. I’m obviously no scientist but I really can’t believe an embryo is yet a person. And I can’t help thinking of all the ‘actual’ living people whose lives are miserable but could be greatly improved by research.



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Derek Leman

posted March 11, 2009 at 7:45 am


Steph #34:
“And I can’t help thinking of all the ‘actual’ living people whose lives are miserable but could be greatly improved by research.”
Let’s break that down: I can’t help thinking of all the people I know to be actual whose lives are miserable but could greatly be helped if research kills people I can’t be sure have life (but I can’t be sure they don’t either). So let’s just kill them and let God sort it out.
Doesn’t work for me. Does it work for you?
Derek Leman



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RJS

posted March 11, 2009 at 7:51 am


Derek,
Should we ban in vitro fertilization as a technique to help infertile couples?
Should we ban IVF and genetic testing to avoid devastating genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs?



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Jeff Lutz

posted March 11, 2009 at 2:02 pm


I guess I came down to this issue. If we can fertilize eggs outside the womb, and we can save premature babies earlier and earlier, When does life start when the technology comes along that allows the whole process to be done outside of the mother? As a scientist (meteorologist) and techno person, I can see that the technology will come along to help high risk pregnancies. So when does a life begin? For me I made the decision that it begins at conception, because of the the question if we can sustain the growth that occurs in the womb outside then what is the difference between a growing fetus and a baby that has been delivered. Both are vulnerable to death if not fed and nurtured.



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Randy

posted March 11, 2009 at 4:40 pm


RJS- I wish we would not start these conversations with Ban this or Ban that. It makes the whole discussion too jaded too soon. I personally feel IVF is a very sticky issue and should not be gone into without great thought. Part of the problem with IVF is all of the “left over” embryos that I think are made in the image of God (I’m with Jeff on this). Now if IVF can be done without that problem, then I don’t think the technology itself is wrong.
As for the research, all of the research for the last 12 years has given next to nothing from embryonic stem cells. Lots of good research has been done on adult stem cells that have been therapeutic. My argument would be let’s put resources into this research that has been effective rather than the pipe-dream of embryonic stem cells that has not.



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Derek Leman

posted March 11, 2009 at 5:02 pm


RJS:
Should IVF be banned as a matter of public policy? I don’t know enough but I believe there is a high failure rate. If so, we are destroying lives hoping one works out.
I am more certain that a person of faith should not do this, even if no extra embryos are created.
BTW, I practice what I preach and have 8 kids. I don’t believe in birth control either, not even the “natural” kind the RC church accepts.
Derek Leman



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steph

posted March 11, 2009 at 10:12 pm


No Derek, that’s not what I said, and not the way I see it at all. These are embryos not people. And not all women can handle having eight children. I admire your wife, but some of us would have nervous breakdowns.



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Your Name

posted March 11, 2009 at 10:14 pm


and not just nervous breakdowns – some of us are not physically capable of such strength.



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Debra Rincon

posted March 12, 2009 at 3:14 am


If it can save just one life to do the research, then it will be so worth doing the research. I am all for saving lives, and protecting them also. I am a mother of 5 children. I would never have done alot of things like donate eggs, abortion, or kill, but I wouldn’t say someone who was raped has to have a baby. I know I’m a bit off the subject but, I think we need all the chance doctor’s need aslong as they are killing any human babies for the cells. Or they have to have permission, written right? Or what??? I am really undecided too????????????????????I’m sorry, It’s so complicated between health issues and life. I can’t be sure. It would have to be really explained throughly, and then maybe???



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steph

posted March 12, 2009 at 6:51 am


They aren’t wanting to kill ‘human babies’. They want to use discarded embryos. I wouldn’t have an abortion or kill either and I wouldn’t stop a victim of rape or woman whose life was in danger, from having an abortion.



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