by Emily Updegraff
Emily Updegraff is a BYU alum an holds a PhD in Biology. Emily submitted this wonderful post to us, which we are excited now to share with you.
Last week President Obama issued an executive order removing a lot of restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Federal funds can now be used to support research using hundreds of stem cell lines, not just the 21 lines President Bush approved in 2001. Over the past eight years, embryonic stem cell research has been limited to private research institutions that have sufficient support to run without NIH grants, and a few academic labs that have carefully partitioned themselves into NIH funded and privately funded domains. Research at universities across the country will be significantly impacted by the executive order, both in the long and short term. I believe Obama’s executive order is the beginning of a new era of stem cell research, one that will likely require the Church to re-examine its position on stem cell research, and consequently its position on when life begins.
The immediate impact of the executive order will be that existing embryonic stem cell labs can add new cell lines to their repertoire, that private research institutions can now apply for NIH funding, and that academic labs that were previously of mixed funding can now freely share resources and information among themselves and their colleagues.
In the long term, it could mean many different things, depending on how Congress acts. Congress passed two bills during the Bush administration relaxing the rules regarding federal funding, but Bush vetoed both of them. Obama’s executive order will hold for now, but if research is going to continue long-term using the lines Obama just freed up, Congress will need to act to make it permanent. Also, Because of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment of 1995, federal funds still can not be used to create new stem cell lines, because that would require destroying an embryo. Congress could repeal Dickey-Wicker, which would allow federal funding to support the dismantling of human embryos.
In my opinion Congress will act, sooner or later, to lift restrictions and pave the way for embryonic stem cell research to go forward in an ethical way. I think this is a good thing. My position stems from the fact that I don’t believe human life begins at conception, so I do not believe that using a very young embryo to create a stem cell line is the equivalent of an abortion. The Church does not have a position on the use of embryonic stem cells in research, nor does it have a position on when human life begins (although it does not support elective abortions). But the Church does (at least indirectly) support research at BYU. Would the church allow embryonic stem cell research at its flagship university?
Currently there are no researchers doing embryonic stem cell research at BYU. The research done in the College of Life Sciences weighs heavily towards ecology and evolution, with rather few professors doing biomedical research. But last year the Microbiology and Molecular Biology department hired an assistant professor whose research depends on the use of adult stem cells. I wonder if this professor could foresee his work utilizing embryonic stem cells, or if BYU would hire a professor who planed to do research using embryonic stem cells. It’s an important question because if embryonic stem cell research were done at BYU, it may require the Church to clarify its position on embryonic stem cell research, which may require clarification on its position on when life begins.
I have know idea how much oversight BYU’s board of directors has regarding what kind of research gets done at BYU. It would be fascinating to know that. I am doubtful that the board approves every research proposal that goes out of the University, but who knows? I know prospective hires are thoroughly vetted regarding their moral standing and commitment to the Church, but how much attention do the ecclesiastical authorities pay to the research they plan to do?
There are several reasons why embryonic stem cell research may not happen at BYU for quite a while, maybe ever. One is that for some reason the life sciences at BYU are heavily dominated by people who study ecology and evolution. This doesn’t mean they don’t hire people in other fields, of course, but like attracts like. Otherwise why would there be so very many ecologists there? Two, embryonic stem cell research is expensive and BYU professors have to teach, which limits the time they have to write grants, which limits their financial resources. Three, BYU doesn’t have quite the ability to attract grad students and post docs that major research institutions do, which is a reason why it may be hard to attract people doing cutting-edge stem cell research to BYU. But it’s not impossible that someone doing embryonic stem cell research could apply for a job at BYU. Of course, we’ll only know if that has happened if the person actually gets hired.