Norfolk, Va. The debate over the ethics of stem-cell research intensified Wednesday with word that Virginia scientists have created human embryos in the lab solely for the valuable cells.
Medical ethicists say the development complicates the issue at a time when President Bush is weighing whether federal money should be used for research on embryonic stem cells.
Patient groups favor such research because of its breakthrough potential in treating diseases, while anti-abortion groups and others call such work unethical because it entails destroying the embryos.
Embryonic stem cells can mature into any cell or tissue. As a result, scientists say they someday may be used to repair or replace damaged tissue or organs in victims of Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer and spinal cord injuries.
Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson criticized the development on his "700 Club" television show Wednesday. "We're on the slippery slope now," he said. "Before long, we'll be harvesting body parts from fully formed people, not just from something in a petri dish. Once you begin this concept of utilitarian use of cells, then everything is up for grabs."
Kenneth Goodman, director of bioethics at the University of Miami, said such research illustrates the need for federal guidelines.
"The in vitro fertilization industry evolved with almost no regulation, which is why you have bizarre custody disputes over fertilized eggs in refrigerators," Goodman said. "Society, in the form of government, failed to oversee and regulate a controversial industry. For the government now not to support and therefore oversee stem cell research would be another failure. It would allow the research to go forth unregulated again."
The work was done at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine, a private fertility clinic responsible for the birth in 1981 of the nation's first test-tube baby. The findings appeared Wednesday in the journal Fertility and Sterility, a publication of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.