Stem Cell Research Debate at Smith
By April Simpson ’06
For the person
with a spinal cord injury who is confined to a wheelchair,
stem cell research could offer the chance to walk again.
For doctors, this research extends the possibility of reversing the progressive
loss of mental capacity found in Alzheimer’s patients.
argue that this revolutionizing area of modern medicine could
potentially deprive an embryo of the right to develop into a human being.
Reconciling the two positions is difficult. “It’s purely
a political question of how much the U.S. wants to be dictated by religious
Sarah Franklin ’82, professor of social studies of biomedicine at the
London School of Economics and Political Science.
Leaders in the field of embryonic
stem cell research delivered lectures and debated these issues and others
Promise and Politics of Stem Cell Research” conference held in Weinstein
Auditorium in March. The conference, sponsored by the Office of the President
and the 2004-05
Louise W. and Edmund J. Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, was part of the institute’s
yearlong project Biotechnology and World Health.
The Kahn Institute supports
collaborative research among faculty and students. This year, 18 faculty
and student fellows representing nine departments are researching such
topics as the relationship between biotechnology and hunger
and the ways in which religion and politics affect the reproductive health
and lives of women in Ireland.
Embryonic stem cells are of particular
interest to the scientific and medical communities because
of their immortality and their ability to develop into virtually
any other cell made by the human body. The debate over the use of these
cells springs from their retrieval from in vitro fertilization clinics,
fears that the cells will be used for human cloning and a question that
also encompasses the abortion issue.
“The crux of the matter, in
my opinion, revolves around the question of when life begins,” said
Douglas Melton, Harvard University Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor
of the Natural Sciences. “Life, or personhood, is a process,” he
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney supports
state funding for stem cell research excluding cloning. He also supports
guidelines that permit the development of embryonic stem cell lines from
surplus embryos in fertility clinics, but he does not support the creation
of new embryos for research.
policy limits public research funding to support only work on previously
established cell lines, but private funding has no such restrictions.
day that stem cells cure a patient with spinal cord injury or Parkinson’s
disease is the day the political debate ends,” noted Sidney H.
Golub, former executive director of the Federation of American Societies
for Experimental Behavior and a member of the Smith College Board of
Although none of the Kahn student fellows
is focusing specifically on stem cells, Smith Deborah Haas-Wilson,
professor of economics and panel chair, says that the current political
debate was a common topic of interest among fellows across academic disciplines.
The conference included perspectives that
offered feminist critiques, highlighting the political history
of embryonic stem cell research and its relationship with the women’s
movement, and that stressed the importance of educating the public and
becoming personally involved in the political process.
Kahn’s perspective, the conference embodied what the Kahn
is all about -- the collaborations and the interdepartmental perspectives
on issues,” says Kahn fellow Rachel Shoichet ’05, who
is exploring family and reproductive technologies through firsthand
accounts of doctors specializing in in vitro fertilization. “Stem
cells are the perfect example because of the [interest] that this
research has generated so far.”