This is one reason we're confused:
Few in the media have bothered to tell us precisely what a stem cell is or what is meant by "existing lines" of stem cells or why they're even newsworthy. And these three issues are key to understanding what I'll call the Great Stem Cell Debate of 2001.
When George W. Bush made his celebrated speech last week on the subject of stem cells, he said federal funds (we're talking about grants from the National Institute of Health, basically) should be used only for research on "existing lines" of stem cells. Unless you know what that phrase means, you're lost already, I'm afraid.
Here is what I know about stem cells and "existing lines."
Stem cells form inside human embryos almost from the moment of conception. As you likely know, an embryo is an ovum, or egg, that has been fertilized by sperm, usually after a moment of shared ecstasy between a man and a woman.
To many people this is the moment when human life begins, and it's hard to argue. This is when lightning strikes, when the magic of human life happens, when the genes and chromosomes lock in to begin growing a unique individual. It's how every human being who ever existed, began (with the possible exception of any clones out there, or of Adam and Eve or Jesus--possibilities that hint at the moral complexity surrounding this issue, but I digress).
Anyway, a couple of decades ago, medical labs began creating human embryos in laboratory dishes by artificially fertilizing human eggs and implanting one or more of them in formerly infertile women. At the point of implantation, each embryo is no larger than the period at the end of this sentence.
And inside that tiny embryo--that micro-drop of biological material--exists the stuff of which we are made. The cells inside that tiny sphere have the capacity to develop into any and all of the hundreds of types of cells in the human body. From hair to teeth. From brains to bones, they literally grow all that we are, at least on a physical plane.
That is why they're so amazing, and so valuable. Stem cells have the potential to grow into new brain tissue for those afflicted with Alzheimer disease. They have the potential to grow into new bone marrow, new liver tissue, perhaps new blood, depending on manipulations of scientists and doctors.
Even though Congress passed a law in 1995 banning federal funding of stem cell research that destroys embryos, President Clinton quietly moved toward allowing such funding, so long as the government didn't actually pay for extracting them from the embryo, according to "Newsweek."
In 1998, James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, created a colony of stem cells by growing them in a "nutrient medium" in a laboratory. Thus he created the first stem cell "line."
Since then, some 60 other lines, or reproducing colonies, have been created in labs around the world, including Israel, Australia, Sweden, India and Singapore.
Many in the pro-life movement have decried the creation of stem cell lines because it necessarily involves the destruction of human embryos, and likely will create a need for destroying more of them. During the 2000 campaign, Bush promised not to allow federal funding for manipulations of such basic human material. That's why he drew the line where he did last week. Bush said those who would use federal money for stem-cell research must restrict their work to one of the existing 60 or so "stem-cell lines." In other words, they must use stem cells already growing in those 60 or so "colonies," such as the one Thomson started.
Some have bemoaned the incoherency of Bush's position. If the human embryo is a human being, then no philosophical grounds exist for allowing scientists to exploit it.
On the other hand, no one can blame Bush for the destruction of human embryos, since the stem cell colonies now in existence were derived from embryos long since destroyed and which, in any case, would have been thrown away. His speech rejects permitting more such colonies to be created.
Parties on both sides of the debate are angry. Some scientists say the 60 or so "lines" are not enough for all of the research that needs to be done, given that stem cell colonies deteriorate over time, and stem cell research is likely to explode, considering the promise of huge profits. Some in the pro-life camp say Bush has lost all credence as a pro-life president.
In some ways the whole debate is symbolic. We don't rule the world--under Bush we're not even engaged in global policy--and so we likely won't stop other nations from developing new lines of stem cells anytime soon.
Recently at a National Academy of Sciences meeting, several doctors and scientists loudly exclaimed that they would move forward with efforts to clone human beings, even though our government has taken steps to outlaw cloning. This is a different subject, of course, but it's related. Like cloning, stem cell manipulation has escaped Pandora's Box. It is not likely to be returned in our lifetime.