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Our nation’s elected leaders and the American public at large is involved in a public policy debate regarding the ethical, moral, scientific and societal implications of controversial issues such as stem cell research, cloning, and human genetic engineering and modification.
Stem cells are the building blocks of the body and have the ability to divide indefinitely and differentiate into virtually any type of cell in the human body. Since scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins University first isolated these cells in 1998, their promise in treating a myriad of chronic diseases has become increasingly evident. Stem cells are special cells found in very early stage embryos (5 days after fertilization of an egg) and in some types of adult tissue. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells (sometimes referred to as pluripotent), which means they have not yet developed into a particular type of cell that performs a specialized function (e.g., skin, heart, or nerve cells) and they can, under certain circumstances, develop into many different types of cells. Stem cell research promises to allow these undifferentiated stem cells to be stimulated to develop into various types of specialized cells or tissue.
Stem cells are derived from human embryos developed for in vitro fertilization that are in excess of the infertile couple’s need. If these excess cells are not used for this research or offered to other, infertile couples (both are ethical options) they will be discarded. Nearly half of infertile couples say they would like to see some good come from their biological tissue that would otherwise become medical waste and feel that use of these cells in research to help save lives is extremely important.
At the crux of policy debates surrounding these issues are important distinctions which must be made between the two applications of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), or cloning, technologies:
The purpose of using clonal embryos via SCNT technology to generate stem cells is to allow creation of tissues or organs that the clonal donor can use without having these tissues or organs rejected by their body's immune system. These individual stem cells hold great promise for the treatment and cures of life threatening diseases and illnesses, such as cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, ALS and spinal cord injury. The molecular processes discovered in working with stem cells derived from SCNT will be extremely valuable in finding ways to increase the utility and versatility of adult stem cells. Supporters of therapeutic cloning technologies believe that efforts to ban bio-medical research could have an adverse effect for many Americans who hope for access to cures from many diseases.
At stake in the debate also are concerns from the research community that the United States could relinquish its place as the leader in biomedical research and Americans could lose access to cures developed from that research if a ban on therapeutic cloning were to be signed into law.
The Future of Stem Cell Research
In a much-anticipated decision on what he called a “complex and difficult issue,” in August 2001 President Bush cited the “great promise” from embryonic stem cell research and announced he would allow federal funding of a limited amount of research using existing stem cell lines. The president stopped short of allowing federal funding for research using stem cells derived from frozen embryos, about 100,000 of which exist at fertility labs across the country, many awaiting destruction. The decision represents essentially the most restrictive use of federal money the administration could have permitted, short of an outright ban, but the new policy veers away from Bush’s previous outright opposition to federal support of this type of research.
The fight for crucial federal dollars to fund stem cell research is not over. Because the current existing stem cell lines are not sufficient, from the scientists’ perspective, a campaign has begun on Capitol Hill to advocate for more lines and greater funding. It is only through the support of the substantial resources of the federal government that researchers will be able to translate the enormous promise of stem cell research into treatments and cures for millions of Americans suffering from devastating diseases.
RESOLVE’s Position on Stem Cell Research and Cloning
Embryonic stem cells hold tremendous promise and could provide the missing link needed to cure some of the world’s most deadly diseases. Up to 100 million Americans may benefit from this research and the suffering of millions could end.
To date, private funding has been the sole financing mechanism for important stem cell research. RESOLVE supports federal funding of stem cell research, because federal funding and oversight would protect the public interest, result in important safeguards, speed progress of this type of research and would mean that the research is not confined to the for-profit commercial sector. The best approach would be to bring this research under the oversight of the federal government by funding it through the National Institutes of Health. Without federal funding, the nation's top academic researchers at universities, medical schools and teaching hospitals cannot join in the search for cures.
RESOLVE supports a carefully drafted legislative prohibition on cloning that is scientifically accurate, is limited to reproductive uses and contains a sunset provision so that the issue can be fully examined as advances in technology warrant. Such a limitation on cloning should not limit research into other uses of nuclear transfer technology. RESOLVE supports research into the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) for therapeutic cloning purposes.
RESOLVE has joined forces with the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), a lobby coalition comprised of representatives from nationally recognized patient organizations, universities, scientific societies, foundations, and individuals with life-threatening illnesses and disorders. CAMR works to ensure that somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) and therapeutic cloning remain a legal and viable form of scientific research and to protect and preserve continued federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. While it is doubtful there would be an immediate benefit from this type of research into cures for those touched by infertility, our support of CAMR and its advocacy agenda provides us with opportunities for dialogue with lawmakers who are part of the larger public policy debate about the future of biomedical research. Equally important, RESOLVE and its CAMR partners oppose any effort that would allow reproductive cloning, a technique we believe, at this time, is unsafe, irresponsible and unethical.
In addition, policymakers have looked to RESOLVE to provide information about the ethical issues surrounding egg donation and research on discarded embryos from fertility clinics -- we feel we have a unique perspective on that aspect of the debate. RESOLVE’s position on stem cell research and cloning does not mandate the destruction of embryos. Rather, RESOLVE believes that while human embryos at any stage are worthy of special respect and consideration, most of them will never be capable of giving rise to a baby. It is not at all clear that SCNT could ever be used to produce a viable human embryo capable of developing into a normal human being. We think SCNT can produce some very special cells, but not yet a child.
RESOLVE further believes that infertility patients should be free from interference in making the very personal decision about the uses of their own body tissues, including reproductive tissues and fertilized reproductive tissues.
RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, is a national non-profit organization whose mission since 1974 has been to provide timely, compassionate support and information to those touched by infertility. RESOLVE works to increase public awareness of the issues surrounding infertility and the various family building options available to those working to resolve their infertility. RESOLVE’s strength lies in its more than 50 volunteer led chapters which provide education and support to the local communities in virtually every state.