In the stem cell debate, asking the right question

The intertwined debate that links abortion to embryonic stem cell research has revolved around the wrong question, said Douglas A. Melton, Ph.D., co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. “I would suggest to you,” he said in his keynote address at the annual meeting in May of the Associates of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, “that the question of when does life begin is the wrong question. The real question is: ‘When does personhood begin?’ ”

A sperm and an egg are already alive before they meet, Melton said, rendering the notion of the beginning of life an arbitrary matter of timing. When does personhood emerge? “This is a metaphysical question that everyone should think about.”

Harnessing the plasticity of stem cells and inducing their differentiation into a desired tissue is years away, Melton said, but within reach. “I predict the 21st century will be a century not about genes and DNA, but about cells and stem cell research. … Genes are not the unit of life. Cells are the unit of life.”


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