When Federal Judge Royce C. Lamberth halted government funding of stem-cell research two weeks ago, he cited a 1998 statute that banned the use of federal dollars for the destruction of human embryos.  The decision by Lamberth thus blocked Obama’s 2009 executive order to expand stem cell research, and sparked uproar from researchers, many of whom scrambled to determine whether their projects could continue.

A more recent development in the case came last Thursday, when a federal appeals court temporarily lifted the ban, allowing any research that may have been stalled to continue. The suspension of the ban will allow the National Institute of Health to allot a previously approved $78 million to 44 researching scientists. In addition, the NIH is now bracing itself for an influx of new applications for funding, as researchers across the country hope to gain federal support during the temporary lifting of the ban.

            In order to explore this hot button issue, The Rover interviewed two Notre Dame professors for their insight on the implications of the ban, as well as the possible motivations behind the political maneuvers.

Biology professor David Hyde, whose many research endeavors include studying the zebrafish eye and the role of adult stem cells and glial cells in the regeneration of retinal neurons, offered his expertise on the subject. With his knowledge on the actual process of research and appeals to the National Institute of Health, he was able to share details on the political backdrop against which this latest development occurs.

Referring to the fact that the ban prohibits the destruction of human life for research purposes, Hyde said, “From a standpoint of what’s ethically considered correct, the injunction has a lot of strength.” Hyde also explained that “from the standpoint of science, there is a detrimental aspect.”

With human embryonic stem cell research across the nation forced to a standstill by Lamberth’s decision, there are repercussions for the scientists performing the research, whether such work destroys human life or not. Hyde explained that, because NIH grants are submitted only three times a year, even a short-term stay on any research could stall study for up to a half year.

In regard to the motivations of researchers on both sides of the debate, there are other issues at stake. Hyde noted that one of the ban’s supporters, Theresa Deisher, claimed that her research, which deals exclusively with adult stem cells, is actually harmed by not banning embryonic stem cell research. Deisher believed that because the NIH only grants a certain amount of money to scientists, any money that researchers of human embryonic stem cells receive detracts from the funding received by non-embryo-destroying groups.

This reasoning, Hyde explains, leads to an ethical quandary in and of itself. Do the motivations of Deisher and of scientists like her hinge solely on a respect for human life, or do they mainly use the life preservation argument in a manipulative manner in order to gain more government funding?

Hyde explained further that the NIH’s limited resources force the organization to be very selective in choosing their grant recipients. Moreover, if any study shows greater promise than another from a strictly scientific point of view, the NIH money goes to the former. It might be the case that efforts like Deisher’s show less promise than research that uses human embryonic stem cells. However, Hyde observed that a myriad of data supports the greater potential of adult stem cell research over embryonic stem cell research as a therapy and/or cure of human diseases. He added that Notre Dame will never perform research that uses human embryonic stem cells.

According to Hyde, the issue has become so politicized that often the question of whether or not to use human embryos for stem cells has fallen by the wayside. Instead, arguments over funding and NIH acceptance of data have taken the stage in the latest discussions of the matter. Indeed, Hyde commented that even if the NIH refuses to supply federal funds to human embryonic stem cell researchers, money is still available for these researchers. Private groups and corporations looking to capitalize on the discoveries yielded by human embryonic stem cell research can fund these studies.

The Rover also interviewed ethicist David Solomon, executive director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame. Solomon, who teaches a course on medical ethics, was able to clarify some of the strictly ethical issues involved in the stem cell debate. Like Hyde, he spoke of a similar sense of confusion about the nature of the issues. He explained that from a purely ethical perspective, the issue lies not merely in performing research on human embryonic stem cells, but also the origin of the test subjects.

At present, the only way to obtain embryonic stem cells is through in vitro fertilization (IVF).  In this process, an egg is subjected to sperm cells and artificial conception causes a human embryo to form in a Petri dish. When stem cells form and are ready to be harvested, the embryo is destroyed.

According to Solomon, embryonic stem cell research is more than an intentional killing of innocent life. In this form of research, he explained, human life is not only destroyed, but it is created for the sole purpose of being destroyed.

The issues in the stem cell debate have surfaced in other bioethical dilemmas. Although “reproductive” cloning remains illegal, some nations allow what is called “therapeutic cloning,” in which a similar destruction of human embryos is considered necessary to advance cures for diseases such as diabetes. The central question in these dilemmas is whether or not the sacrifice of one human life for the sake of bettering the lives of others is warranted, or even permissible.

 Solomon explained that some scientists argue in favor of embryonic stem cell research by claiming that frozen human embryos that have already been destroyed will be discarded if they are not used. Solomon uses an analogy to respond to this argument. If a tribe of natives were found in the mountains ravaged by hunger and destined to die, it would certainly not be permissible to perform tests and studies on them, even if “they are just going to die anyway.”

Josh Varanelli rocks the suburbs – but he’s also talented.  Contact him at jvaranel@nd.edu.