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A middle ground on stem cell research

One day last semester, a fellow student approached me as I enjoyed lunch outside the Marshall Center before all of the construction began.

She asked me to fill out a questionnaire for a survey titled “USF Student Attitudes Toward Stem Cell Research,” and I was glad to oblige. I have done surveys for classes in the past and know firsthand that it can be difficult to get willing participants. I was disappointed, however, to find misleading questions on the form.

By lumping together all types of stem cell research, some of the items on the questionnaire had a “Have you stopped beating your wife?” quality to them, making it difficult to answer with a simple “agree” or “disagree.” For example: “I do not favor the use of stem cells as a possible cure for debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart diseases, brain and nervous system disorders.”

I happen to know that not all stem cell research involves embryos; some come from “adult” sources, which includes material from umbilical cords. Because the people who designed the questionnaire did not specify the origin of the stem cells to be used, it was nearly impossible for me to give answers to some of the statements. I found myself writing lengthy explanations beside the items I left blank.

I do not come to the argument without a personal connection. Another item on the questionnaire stated, “I would oppose stem cell research even if a member of my immediate family might benefit from it.” My father has had diabetes for more than 30 years, and my daughter has battled it for 11. Both have had close brushes with death. I would gladly donate my own pancreas if doing so would cure them, but I cannot support the use of stem cells from embryos. Despite the argument I’ve often heard – that these are unclaimed, frozen embryos that would be destroyed anyway – the slippery slope of what is and what is not legal, ethical and acceptable causes me to doubt the acquisition of embryonic stem cells would stop there.

Three pieces of news on the subject caught my eye this week.

First, the House of Representatives passed a vote to use federal funds to support embryonic stem cell research. President Bush is expected to veto this bill – as he has in the past – and it is unclear if the Democrat-controlled House has enough votes to override it.Second, in Britain, the debate is over combining human embryonic stem cells with animal genetic material (such as cows or rabbits). The researchers claim that cures for degenerative diseases are in jeopardy if they are not granted licenses to do this research. Where are the animal rights protesters now?

Meanwhile, researchers at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., have published a study of their work with stem cells from amniotic fluid. They have found success with every type of cell they have tried to reproduce, which includes blood vessels, heart muscle, bone, fat, nerve and liver tissues. The stem cells – from the fluid left over from amniocentesis tests given to pregnant women – are easy to harvest and sidestep the thorny question of using embryos.

USF is becoming known as a leading research university, and needs to be certain that its research, whether medical, technological or opinion-related, is beyond question in quality. For those in the information and communications fields, that should at least mean that survey questions are clear and not misleading. Before gathering opinions from others, it is essential to get the facts – all of them.

Karen Andrews is a senior majoring in mass communications.