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Abortion Debate Clouds Future of Stem Cell Research

Stem Cell Dilemmas
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However, since the new president has already rolled back funding for international family planning programs that counsel or offer abortion services, the question now is will Bush take a hard look at stem cells? Antiabortion groups hope the answer is yes. They oppose stem cell technology as unethical and illegal. William Saunders, JD, of the conservative Family Research Council, says the approach amounts to "disposable human beings."

"Even though it seems insignificant, it's just the most defenseless human being ... but it's still a human being. To kill one human being to help another ... [is] just not something we want to do. We don't want to go down that road," Saunders tells WebMD.

Under a National Institutes of Health guideline that was finalized last year, stem cell studies can proceed as long as they use embryos originally intended for in vitro fertilization that were going to be discarded anyway. However, a highly placed government source tells WebMD that so far, there have been no applications for stem cell grants, even though the money is available.

The speculation is that researchers are taking a wait and see attitude before committing to complex and controversial experiments that could be canceled. Meanwhile, John Gearhart, PhD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a pioneering stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is watching the situation carefully.

"'Concerned' is a fair statement. I think that there's been a great deal of work and effort to position guidelines that are workable," Gearhart tells WebMD. Gearhart agrees the technology needs oversight, but some of the most egregious potential abuses, like selling embryos, are already outlawed.

Meanwhile, earlier this week Britain's House of Lords voted to allow limited cloning of human embryos to produce stem cells, in spite of vigorous objections from religious leaders. That follows a similar approval from the lower House of Commons last year. Now England could move ahead in this competitive technology.

"Falling behind other research enterprises in this field -- I hope that doesn't happen," says Hendrix.

Though stem cells have detractors, they also have powerful backers, like diabetic Mary Tyler Moore and Parkinson's patient Michael J. Fox. Their voices have already been heard in the debate. So may the chorus of countless others who suffer from heart disease, stroke, and paralyzing diseases.

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