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I’ve wondered for years how we could contribute some perspective to the moral consternation that stem cell research stirred in recent years. As with so many other real and important questions raised by medical advances, I have been unconvinced by the blunt either/or choice that culture-war debates seemed to present: defining stem cell research as either a slippery slope to killing babies or a straight path to curing a host of dreadful diseases. Efforts to humanize the issue with real-life examples — seeming to present a stark choice between condemning Michael J. Fox to death by Parkinson’s, for example, or finding an immediate way to save him — can misrepresent both the promise of this science and the moral concerns it raises.

Hearing Doris Taylor speak, then, was a revelation. I knew I had found our way in to this topic. When it comes to stem cells — as to everything else in life, it turns out — the truth is complicated. And much of the story of stem cells — the big picture that arguments have obscured — falls outside the realm of the most passionately contested issues.

From Doris Taylor I come to understand, for the first time, that the existence and function of stem cells is one of those discoveries, not unlike DNA, that will fundamentally change the way we think about the human body. I learn that there are billions of stem cells throughout my 49-year-old body, and as I write they are repairing my organs and tissues as they have done all of my life — albeit less vigorously at 49 than at 9 because of the passage of time and the stresses that life has imposed, and that I have imposed on my body.

SoundSeen: Bioreactors and Building HopeThe newness and rapidly emerging nature of our knowledge about stem cells has contributed to incomplete premises and an understandable measure of fear. Doris Taylor has spent time in conversation with people in churches these past years as well. She has come away with a conviction that, if the medical community and journalists had used different vocabulary to discuss stem cells at the outset, some of the most heated debates might have been avoided.

She has often encountered the false impression that the stem cell lines used for research came from aborted fetuses. In fact, as she says, “fetal cells” are too old for the work she does. And the “embryonic cells” she uses have all come from eggs fertilized by way of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that would otherwise be destroyed. This insight, of course, does not address moral quandaries over embryos and IVF technology.

But much of the research Doris Taylor and others are doing might one day circumvent all of these issues. If she could build me a heart by way of the process she and her colleagues are refining in the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair, she would use my heart stem cells to do so.

From my visit to Doris Taylor’s lab, you can see elaborate architectural glass bulbs with tubes feeding suspended rodent hearts — one lifeless with old cells; another one stage farther, a pale “scaffold” ready for stem cells to be injected; and finally a regenerated heart pink, pumping, alive and beating on its own. Also, hear the story of the man with a heart disease that told Taylor she is “building hope.”

Seeing the untold story of stem cells beyond the lightning rod, moral issues clears my vision to see unexpected spiritual implications of this work. The genius of Doris Taylor’s work is in its simplicity — in realizing that there was no need to “build” a heart from scratch. Instead, she works with a dead heart, extracted from a cadaver — nature’s cardiac “scaffolding,” as she thinks of it. She washes the lifeless heart, cleans it, and injects the decellularized scaffold with cells that know how to colonize it — and begin to beat and live again.

Doris Taylor echoes one of my favorite themes: beauty is essential to life itself — beauty as a core moral value — as she describes the architectural perfection of nature that she honors and works with. In an exhilarating “field trip” to her lab, I was able to hold the translucent heart of a pig in my hand and see its exquisite intricacy — at once delicate and muscular — for myself.

Approaching the mechanics of life at this level inevitably raises questions about life’s mystery. Doris Taylor says she is passionate about “regenerating heart on a lot of different levels.” And as she considers how new knowledge about stem cells might one day change the way we think about health across the life span — facing aging, for example, or cancer — she is studying how spiritual technologies like prayer and meditation might support that. She describes a very simple test she did on the Buddhist spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. She measured a vast increase in stem cells in his blood after just 15 minutes of meditation.

All of this said, the fascinating science of stem cell research still comes with a world of real and complex moral uncertainties. We hope this conversation with Doris Taylor might broaden existing conversations and inform fresh thinking on the moral and ethical questions her science touches. Let us hear your thoughts — either as they’re sparked by this conversation or through your own experiences and knowledge.

 


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5 Comments

Very thought provoking story on stem cells and especially Dr. Taylor's perspectives on the moral obligation she feels to pursue her work. Indeed, I found Dr. Taylor's response to William Saletan's question ("How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?") most thought provoking.

She answered by identifying the difficulty of denying the claim to stem-cell research levied by a concerned mother whose child is suffering and could be cured. What struck me most about this comment is that if one believes the embryo is either human life or potential human life (which obviously not all agree on) then one of main differences between the embryo and the mother is the mother's ability to communicate and to plea for compassion. The embryo has no such ability to communicate the need for survival or to request our aid on his/her behalf.

Here is where many in the religious community would insert the moral obligation to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak on their own behalf. Anyways, just more thoughts that have been provoked and might provoke more thoughts. Thank you for the thoughtful treatment of very sensitive topic.

Completely captivating and fascinating. The information Ms. Doris Taylor brought forward strikes me as ultimately correct and our answer to optimal health. I will especially "Take It to Heart" (there's her next book title) her feeling that inflammation is Nature's call for more stem cells to aid in the body's repair. An utterly brilliant assessment.

Never mind that her work with her colleagues may have brought us one of the greatest breakthroughs in understanding of how to cooperate with the human body to date.

Thank you, Ms. Taylor.

This was a disturbing show. It's presented as part of an effort to get beyond the disputes over embryonic stem cell research when in fact it plainly privileges one side while largely suppressing the other. I don't think that's intentional, but that doesn't make it less disturbing.

When the show initially raises the question of morality it effectively obscures it by addressing the issue of whether stem cells used for research are derived from abortion but not whether embryos destroyed in the process of developing embryonic stem cell lines are human lives of the kind we must protect just as we do adult human lives, a belief strongly held by many spiritual, intelligent, well informed, thoughtful people of good will. Having quickly disposed of the only moral concern raised at that point, the show then slides together the highly controversial case of embryonic stem cells with the uncontroversial case of adult stem cells, presented with all manner of gauzy wonder, online photos and even uplifting musical cues that underline the emotional impact. The effect is to transfer the uncontroversially positive feelings associated with the one to the other without having to face the central moral problem.

When that central moral issue is finally raised, it's towards the end, after most of the emotional work has been done, and only in an attenuated form. There are no personal stories, no photos, no dark musical cue, and no poetic language lamenting the possibility of the loss of innocent human life at the hands of other humans--apart from the striking term "strip-mine humanity," which still falls short of the full weight of the issue. In effect, raising the issue in that limited way simply allows Ms. Taylor's view that embryonic stem cell research is morally right to be further reinforced with more personal stories and poetic language, topped off with another soaring musical cue. Throughout the show, Tippett is sympathetic with and implicitly supportive of Taylor's views.

This is disturbing on two levels. It isn't that I disagree with Taylor's views as far as they go. In fact I strongly support embryonic stem cell research for some of the reasons she gives. However . . .

On the level of the issue itself, Taylor's talk of stem cells being "tools" given us by Nature is disturbing if one takes seriously, as one must when seeking to get at the deep issues, the possibility that some of those tools derive from the intentional taking of what may be innocent human life. As Tippett acknowledges above, that the embryos are likely to be destroyed anyway doesn't settle the issue of what their human status is, nor does the fact that there are reasons favoring embryonic stem cell research, however beautiful and moving. Not being disturbed by that central question, which has equally important implications for abortion--and most of the show invites and induces us to be the opposite of disturbed--implies some fairly comfortable moral conclusion about it, as does not taking it seriously enough to deal with it as fully and prominently as the wondrous, beautiful results of destroying human embryos. (Research resting on an immoral foundation could of course have wondrous and beautiful results, which fact of life is disturbing in itself.)

On a broader level, as I implied up front it's disturbing that such a grave issue as the possible taking of innocent human life can be so effectively suppressed by honest people of good will, such as Tippett and her staff, even when they apparently think they're being uncommonly open and seeking deeper understanding.

When Dr. Taylor paints her vision of the future, she emphasizes "we would take *your* stem cells and implant them." But when she talks about her own work, she talks about taking the stem cells of "a fertilized egg." She rhapsodizes about the billion stem cells in each of us, but her sympathy with present suffering (including her own experiences) drives her to take her stem cells wherever she can find them.

How much more inspiring it would be, if Dr. Taylor allowed her compassion for the suffering to drive her research into collecting and refining these precious stem cells in a way and from a source that does not raise ethical questions, questions with which even she herself seems not quite comfortable.

We need more of this type of conversation. It is easier to keep things to a black and white/right v wrong discussion than it is to do the hard work of understanding of our own internal workings, physical, emotional and spiritual.

Often I find that this program lets me look both in a mirror and thru a window at the same time; opening my eyes to new ideas and perspectives as well as letting me reflect on my own.