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Frozen generation

"Frozen generation" Continued...

Issue: "Malaria: Kill or be killed," Oct. 29, 2005

Protestant churches have not only refrained from establishing doctrine about in vitro fertilization, but have shied away from public discussions of the topic. The Roman Catholic Church, in contrast, hasn't been silent.

The Vatican's Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, published a teaching called the Donum Vitae, or "Gift of Life." The Donum Vitae enumerated the Catholic case against in vitro fertilization, embryo freezing, and research on embryos conceived during in vitro fertilization. It affirmed, however, that all embryos, including those created in vitro, must be respected from the moment of conception.

"Outside Catholic circles, I think, the problem of the disposition of embryos has been ignored for some time because it's uncomfortable," said Biola's Scott Rae. The Thomases also noted the lack of Protestant writings on the subject. "We felt so alone," Mrs. Thomas said. "Nobody had written anything concise."

Mr. Rae, himself an evangelical , wrote in his book in 1996 that he recommended almost exclusively Catholic authors when asked for theological readings on reproductive technology. "Those few evangelical sources that did exist tended to treat the subject simplistically," he wrote.

If non-Catholic churchgoers have been indifferent, they mirror public indifference. The public viewed the embryos as property, and couples saw no need to consult their pastors over how to dispose of their property. The Mays weren't indifferent to their embryos; they said they would never have simply destroyed them. At the same time, they said their eventual decision to give the embryos up for adoption came easily.

"We didn't really think of them as our children," Mrs. May said. "It was just a baby for somebody else."

Evangelicals started to realize the consequences of their indifference around the turn of the millennium. Scientists had already made strides treating diseases with stem-cell transplants. In the transplants, adult stem cells (which can be any stem cell post-birth) act as factories for creating new, healthy cells that heal tissue damage from disease or injury.

Many scientists had come to believe embryonic stem cells could similarly cure even more devastating diseases because, unlike specialized adult stem cells, they had the potential to produce almost all the tissue in the body. Harvesting stem cells from an embryo destroys it.

President Bush's 2001 policy limited federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells to those already harvested. No federal funding, he stated, could go toward further stem-cell derivation and embryo destruction.

Since then, scientists have bemoaned the quality of embryonic stem cells available for research. They have enlisted people suffering from devastating diseases-Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, paralysis-to pressure every level of government for more support for embryonic stem-cell research. Their arguments assume that most parents do not want their frozen embryos. They portray embryonic stem-cell research as the lesser of two evils when compared to throwing unwanted embryos in the trash.

"Embryonic stem-cell research need not increase the number of embryos destroyed," Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) argued during House debate last summer. "Instead, it decreases the number of embryos destroyed in vain."

In reality, few parents have expressed a willingness to donate their frozen embryos to research. The 2002 census of frozen embryos found that only 2.8 percent of the estimated 400,000 were being stored for future use in research. About 65 percent of those embryos could be expected to survive the freezing and thawing processes. The study noted scientists usually make many unsuccessful attempts before deriving a usable line of embryonic stem cells. Therefore, the embryos currently stored for research would likely produce a mere 275 cell lines.

Ironically, researchers at the forefront of the field have already lost interest in using frozen embryos as a source of stem cells. They would rather make their own embryos through cloning. The appeal of cloning lies in the fact that a person's body would automatically accept stem cells taken from clones of themselves. The use of donor stem cells would risk rejection, as is the case in organ transplants.

"There are methods of deriving embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos that could be used to study and, in time, to treat human disease," Ian Wilmut, Great Britain's best-known embryo researcher, told reporters in late August. "Let's get on with this, for the sake of thousands of patients."

So where does that leave 400,000 unborn, frozen embryos?

In March 2004, the President's Council on Bioethics released a report noting the lack of uniform regulations and standards for assisted reproduction. The report listed some policy options for regulating IVF and similar procedures, but stopped short of endorsing any one method of government oversight of the field.

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