Stem cell research, and the use thereof as a medical treatment, is not so new an advent as it is often portrayed. The abundance of stem cells in bone marrow is the reason it’s used in transplants to treat such diseases as cancer and leukemia. The moral dilemma – which I have found stems from a limited understanding – comes from the more recent advent of using umbilical cord blood. From this comes the question of whether funding for cord blood stem cell research should come from the federal government.
For a time, it was widely misconceived that fetal stem cells or cord blood stem cells came largely from abortion clinics. The mother-to-not-be could give something back by donating the remains of the lifeless fetus to be researched towards developing new medical treatments. This rather macabre depiction of stem cell research gave rise to the belief that it would lead to the parents of irreparably unhealthy fetuses being encouraged to sacrifice their child to provide medical treatment for a handful of others.
While stem cells can come from aborted fetuses, the more common practice is not the least bit grim and is more of a pay-it-forward than a personal redemption. The blood in the umbilical cord is rich with stem cells, hence the name cord blood stem cells. In actuality, the largest quantities of fetal stem cells used in research and medicine come from umbilical cords donated from healthily born babies.
Dozens of diseases have been found treatable by cord blood stem cells. These include the aforementioned malignancies, such as various strains of leukemia, myelodisplastic syndrome (MDS), and solid tumors such as neuroblastoma and non-hodkin’s lymphoma. It may also treat hemoglobinopathies, or blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia, thalassemia and congenital cytopenia. Stem cells can also be used in treatments for metabolic diseases including bare-lymphocyte syndrome, hunter syndrome, and genetic osteopetrosis. They can even be used against immunodeficiencies such as wiskott-aldrich syndrome and adenosine deaminase deficiency (ADA). In fact, well over 100 diseases, disorders and deficiencies have successfully been treated with cord blood stem cells, and research is both ongoing and progressive.
Therefore, the reasons the federal government should fund the research are two-fold.
Foremost, the role of government is not to rule but to lead and guide. Our tax dollars should be viewed as a way to provide for us, fortifying our lives and our nation, rather than paying bribes and lining the pockets of lobbyists. The idea of income tax is to pay for services that the federal government provides to its citizens, a generally reasonable give-and-take that many people have come to take for granted, due largely to the frail condition, physically, fiscally and otherwise, that the nation has fallen into over the past decade.
I’m not here to get into political finger-pointing, at least not in this article, but the Bush era certainly instilled the belief that government rules a nation rather than leading it. It wasn’t until recently, when money was finally spent on the domestic economy, that people realized money was being taken out of our pockets and getting us nothing in return. Although, those who stood up to point the finger did so at the wrong people. Either way, the fact remains that the money being taken from our pay checks is to be used to provide services to us: fund our schools, pave our roads, research energy sources for our homes, open and maintain trade abroad, etc.
According to clinical trials conducted in 2004 by ABT Associates, a child has a 1 in 400 chance of needing cord blood stem cells at some point in his/her life, while the child or a family member has a 1 in 200 chance of needing that child’s saved cord blood stem cells. Given the rate at which developments have come about, meaning more diseases are now treatable by such means, the odds are undoubtedly higher.
This means that approximately hundreds of thousands of children need cord blood stem cells, as do roughly a million adults, but many do not qualify or cannot afford the treatment. Given the rate at which the American population increases as well as the aforementioned treatment developments, both numbers will likely be well into the millions in the next ten years. Since the families of these children most likely pay taxes, it seems only fair that the government should fund research towards their well-being. As with all reasonable solutions, there is something in it for the government as well.
If left untreated, a large percentage of these children will never be able to enter the work force, assuming they survive to reach adulthood. What this means is that they will not be paying income taxes, denying the federal government billions of dollars every year in income taxes as well as funding for social security. Additionally, many of these conditions would be considered disabilities, granting the ill-stricken access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after completing a mountain of paperwork and filing multiple appeals. Still, regardless of the red tape, they have access to government funds and may even qualify for subsidized housing, or reduced rent and utilities based on income.
What this means is that the federal government is losing money with the benefits they must pay to the untreated and also denying themselves potential gains in that these people cannot find employment and thus cannot pay taxes. This financial burden is then passed on to healthier citizens who are expected to fund the government benefits while being left with little in return. In other words, the federal government needs to fund stem cell research not only for the ill-stricken, but also for themselves and even the rest of us.