Bringing Purpose to All Forms of Human Life: Thoughts on Stem Cell Research

Published: March 9, 2009  |  Source:

Matthew Sanford writes: My wife Jennifer and I have a nine-year-old son named Paul. We are both his biological and everyday parents. This amazing, life-transforming opportunity was made possible by in-vitro fertilization – a process where a woman’s egg and a man’s sperm are combined outside of the woman’s body, helped to form an embryo, and then implanted back into the woman’s womb. Becoming a biological parent was a remarkable turn of events in my life. Thirty years ago, I was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident at age thirteen. I was told that the chances that I could biologically produce a child were a million to one. I accepted this loss as part of my injury and lived my life. When medical science discovered a way to change this fact, an aspect of my ongoing injury healed.

I am telling you this because I saw, under a microscope, the three eight-celled embryos that were implanted in Jennifer’s womb. I saw them three days after conception. From those three embryos, Jennifer became pregnant with twins. One of our sons died in-utero at thirty-four weeks. Jennifer gave birth to both our sons, William and Paul, at thirty-seven and one-half weeks. The experience of this twin birth, one living son and one dead son, changed my life. It also is the closing chapter of my book WAKING: A MEMOIR OF TRAUMA AND TRANSCENDENCE. Jennifer and I are choosing not to try to have another child. We do, however, have other embryos that were not implanted and remain frozen in stasis. My point for this blog is that, when the debate rages about stem cell research from embryos, it is not an abstraction for me.

I have had contact with stem cell research in another aspect of my life. The non-profit I founded Mind Body Solutions develops mind-body based programs for people living with disabilities and their caregivers, including family members and rehabilitation professionals. We are in the process of rolling out programs that aim to help our veteran population. One place this may happen in the coming years is the state-of-the-art spinal cord center that is opening at the Minneapolis VA hospital. They are interested in our work because they expect new treatments – deriving from stem cell research – for our men and woman who sustain spinal cord injuries. In fact, based on this research and subsequent nerve grafting procedures, the spinal cord unit medical director Dr. Gary Goldish expects that complete paralysis as a result of a spinal cord injury will be a thing of the past. He believes that complete recovery is a ways away yet, but, in the next five years, anywhere from a 10-30% recovery of voluntary movement will be standard. He foresees that our mind-body programs may complement these new treatments because, as this nerve-grafting happens, surgeons will not be able – at least not yet – to line up the axons correctly. This means that these men and woman will have quite a mind-body problem. For example, a patient might go to move his knee and his ankle might move instead. These men and women will have to retrain their mind-body relationships and I think we will be able to help them.

To be fair, I do not know if this stem cell research project is being done with embryonic or adult stem cells. But I do know what this means for people living with spinal cord injuries. I do know what stem-cell breakthroughs will mean for people suffering with other disabilities and afflictions. For these people, the stem cell debate is not an argument based on principle. It is based on real life suffering and new hope for healing.

There are no easy answers for the debate that surrounds stem cell research. My thoughts on it are pretty simple. The issue seems more clear cut if you consider it only in abstraction, as only an issue between competing principles, for example, the potential benefits produced by science versus a certain view of morality as it pertains to life. The stem cell issue is less clear when you learn about the people whose lives will be transformed. It is an issue that each person will have to come to terms with in his or her own way. Personally, I am unwilling to look an injured veteran in the eyes and tell him not only that he cannot have access to a promising new treatment but that the treatment itself has not been funded because I might have a certain view of morality. In my view, the correct moral position with respect to stem cell research is unclear. In such cases, I believe that the research should proceed but it remains up to the individual whether he or she decides to utilize it. I am not setting forth a principle that applies to all cases and all types of research. I am only saying that these are my thoughts as they relate to stem cell research.

When I opened to the possibility of having a child through in-vitro fertilization, many things got set in motion. When I looked through that microscope at those three embryos, I was humbled and awestruck. I did not see my son Paul, nor my dying son William. I saw powerful, living potential. I also felt hope. If our remaining embryos can help someone else, then I believe purpose will be brought to the life that has been created. I do not say this lightly. I say this as a person who feels tremendous responsibility to the life that I have been a part of creating. Jennifer and my intention is to donate our embryos to research.

By Matthew Sanford