A stem cell is a primitive type of cell that can be coaxed into developing into most of the 220 types of cells found in the human body (e.g. blood cells, heart cells, brain cells, etc). Some researchers regard them as offering the greatest potential for the alleviation of human suffering since the development of antibiotics. Over 100 million Americans and two billion other humans worldwide suffer from diseases that may eventually be treated more effectively with stem cells or even cured. These include heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Stem cells can be extracted from very young human embryos -- typically from surplus frozen embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures at fertility clinics. A couple undergoing IVF is faced with four alternatives for their 16 or so surplus embryos:
Have them discarded.
Donate the embryos to another infertile couple in what is sometimes called "embryo adoption.".
Donate the embryos for research
Have the embryos preserved at very low temperatures.
There are very few parents willing to give their embryos to another couple for a variety of emotional reasons. There are very few couples willing to receive them for emotional reasons and because thawed embryos have such a low chance of starting a pregnancy. Preservation can be expensive. So most ask that they be discarded.
There are currently hundreds of thousands of surplus embryos in storage. One source estimated that there were 400,000 stored embryos by mid-2003. 4 However, a minority of pro-lifers and a majority of pro-life organizations object to the use of embryos in research. They feel that a few-days-old embryo is a human person. Extracting its stem cells kills the embryo -- an act that they consider to be murder. Stem cells can now be grown in the laboratory, so (in...