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Embryos best left to owners’ discretion

A federal judge on Monday put a halt on President Barack Obama’s 2009 announcement that research could begin on new stem cells. At this stage in the debate, the ruling was the right thing to do.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that a lawsuit challenging Obama’s decision can

proceed, and its implementation should be delayed until the case is resolved.

At issue are fertilized eggs that were only a few days old before they were frozen. These zygotes have started to multiply, but only have about 100 cells. They haven’t advanced to the point that any organs or other physical structures have begun to form. As such, every cell still has the potential to develop into any type of tissue — brain, heart or nerve, for example.

Researchers hope they can learn to tap this potential and learn to generate, or regenerate, any of those structures. If it’s possible, they hope, they might be able to use the cells to address degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Obama reversed a 2001 order by then-President George W. Bush that allowed research to continue using stem cells that had been created before Aug. 9, 2001, but not afterward. Generally they were embryos that had been created in

fertilization clinics but weren’t going to be used. Those clinics usually fertilize several eggs during treatment, in case the first implantations aren’t successful. Once a woman becomes pregnant, or if the treatments are stopped, the leftover embryos aren’t used.

Recent federal funding bills have included the “Dickey Amendment,” named for former U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican who first added it in 1995. The rider prohibits the use of federal tax money to either create or destroy human embryos for research purposes.

Lamberth’s ruling notes that Obama’s executive order makes it likely that tax money would be used in stem cell research, violating the law.

The nonprofit Nightlight Christian Adoptions group filed the suit contesting Obama’s order. The group works to find people willing to “adopt” and implant abandoned embryos, rather than create new ones, in hopes of developing them into babies. Using the cells for research destroys the embryos, and the potential they hold for creating human beings.

This is one obvious case in which technology has raised ethical questions that never existed just a few years ago. Some see that the research could lead to new treatments against many illnesses, others worry that people could start to create embryos — which many consider human at the instant of fertilization — just to destroy them for research or treatment.

Those concerns are only compounded by federal officials who presume to dictate what can be done and who can do it. Technically, the embryos belong to the people who donated the egg and sperm that created them, until they relinquish ownership. Legally, embryos at this stage aren’t human, based on the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling. Morally, the decision is best left with the donors and their beliefs.

With an issue like this, which is based on many people’s core beliefs, it is best for the government to tread lightly, and leave the decisions in private, and personal, hands.

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