My grandmother lives in me as images. I see her dark, weathered hand holding mine, leading a wide-eyed 5-year-old through the sounds and colors of a Hong Kong night market. I see the gentle arch of her back as she sleeps on her hard tile floor, a habit formed while living in a bedless hut as a child. I remember my grandmother visually for languages separated us. I cannot recall any conversation we shared for there were none, but I can picture us together. Those pictures are very dear to me. But nevertheless, they are only pictures, whispers of a grandmother I wish were still with me. This desire to spend more time with our loved ones is why I understand the excitement in the medical community over stem cell research. Stem cells are blank cells, biological clay present in human embryos shortly after conception that can be shaped into any body tissue. That quality, if harnessed by science, could help people with diseases such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, glaucoma and heart damage, the affliction that took my grandmother. When stem cells were first isolated two years ago and cultivated into specific tissues, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Harold Varmus, called it "an unprecedented breakthrough" and thought they might "revolutionize the practice of medicine and improve the quality and length of life." But even though I understand the promise of stem cell research, I cannot accept it. To obtain stem cells, scientists must extract them from days-old embryos, ending their development. In effect, we are exchanging the lives of the young for the lives of the old -- something I cannot accept, no matter how great the rewards. Researchers obtain stem cells from the leftover embryos of in vitro fertilization banks, embryos that are to be destroyed anyway. Proponents argue that it would be a waste not to use these embryos. Following that line of logic, should we not begin experimenting on death row inmates? How about the terminally ill? Why waste the great opportunity we have to experiment on them? Even if I take for granted that this morally dubious practice of using leftover in vitro embryos is ethical, there are still problems. In August, new guidelines released by the Clinton administration allowed public funds to be used for stem cell research, promising to rapidly accelerate the field's progress and increase the demand for stem cells. But in a field with so much potential, it is not unfair to question whether in vitro banks will create leftover embryos that are left over in name only. Then the research crosses over into dangerous ground where the value of human life is dangerously degraded. The thought of an industry that makes life and takes it, that manufactures bodies for the sole purpose of spare parts, is horrific. It places the human embryo on par with the lab rat. And what makes this situation so absurd is that, with a little extra work, stem cells can also be found in adults. According to The Wall Street Journal, researchers in the early 1990s isolated adult precursor cells, stem cells with a narrower range of tissue possibilities but a greater promise of effectiveness. The first precursor cells found were blood stem cells that could be shaped into any of the different cells of blood. Researchers have since isolated stem cells in bone marrow that are capable of becoming bone, cartilage or fat, and are close to identifying stem cells in the liver, brain and pancreas. "I think we will find these stem cells in any organ that we look," Harvard Medical School researcher Evan Snyder told the Journal. Researchers hope to create medications that activate stem cells to regenerate, giving the patient doses of their own tissue in wherever needed. That circumvents the possibility of rejection, an obstacle foreseen in embryonic stem cell therapy, which uses tissues foreign to the patient's body. But even if research on adult stem cells doesn't pan out, we should not turn to embryonic research, to sacrificing those not yet of this world for those of us who are. The pursuit to lengthen our lives -- to lengthen our time with our loved ones -- is a noble cause. But there are boundaries to that pursuit, a point at which it must be called off. I would have done anything to have had more time with my grandmother. But taking the life of another is too much to ask. My memories of her, my pictures, are too precious to be stained with blood.Comments powered by Disqus
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