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The BBC's Caroline Thomsett
"For the Bush administration the timing could not be more critical"
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The BBC's Paul Reynolds in Washington
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Thursday, 12 July, 2001, 02:31 GMT 03:31 UK
Row over made-to-order stem cells
Embryo research in the laboratory
Human embryos are a key source of stem cells
A private fertility clinic in the United States has admitted creating human embryos solely in order to "harvest" cells that are valuable for research.


Before long, we'll be harvesting body parts from fully formed people

Pat Robertson
religious broadcaster
The announcement that stem cells have been made to order has sparked a furious ethical debate among scientists, politicians and religious leaders.

The fuss comes as the Bush administration considers whether or not to approve federal funds for stem cell research.

Up to now, US researchers have obtained stem cells from aborted foetuses or embryos created during fertility treatment but not used.


At one level it's [ethically] cleaner

American Society of Reproductive Medicine
"The timing of this has been somewhere between disastrous and horrific," Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said.

At issue are embryonic stem cells, the "master" cells that can develop into all of the body's tissues - and thus could theoretically be used to repair the damage cause by a host of degenerative diseases.

Slippery slope

Although human embryos have been created, and discarded, for many years in labs around the world to investigate infertility problems, their use at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Virginia solely to harvest stem cells has been condemned by religious leaders.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson
Mr Robertson is worried about the implications
"Before long, we'll be harvesting body parts from fully formed people. Once you begin this concept of utilitarian use of cells, then everything is up for grabs," religious broadcaster Pat Robertson said.

A leading Catholic critic of embryonic stem cell research, Richard Doerflinger, called it a "grotesque practice".

Politicians and scientists were divided on the issue, with one leading Congressman calling the Jones research "absolutely appalling".

Tom DeLay, a House Republican, said stem cell research from human embryos "establishes a bad precedent and is ethically wrong".

Support

But Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said stem cell research was critical and had the support of the public.

He did not comment on the Jones project specifically.

An eight-cell embryo three days after insemination
The clinic asked for donations to create embryos
It is not illegal to create embryos for stem cell research, but even scientists who support such research say there are ethical concerns about producing embryos specifically to harvest stem cells.

There are an estimated 100,000 such frozen foetuses in the US.

Stem cells can also be obtained from adults, but those cells are probably not as malleable - and thus less useful - than embryonic cells.

More ethical

Scientists involved in the Jones project say it is more ethical - not less so - to create new embryos for research.

They argue that asking for sperm and egg donations specifically to create embryos for stem cell research - as they did - means everyone involved understands exactly what is happening throughout the project.

That is not the case when discarded embryos are used, they say.

In 1999, the US National Institutes of Health issued guidelines saying that scientists could work with stem cells provided that they did not create or destroy an embryo themselves.

Government-funded scientists in the US are banned from creating or destroying a human embryo to gain access to stem cells.

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See also:

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