There is an urban legend in its nascent stages floating around the Christian community. A Pro-Life group has seized upon a line item in PepsiCo.’s R&D budget, combed the patent filings for the company receiving said funds and discovered that the company in question–Senomyx–is using a line of stem cells in their research that includes cultivars from a fetus aborted sometime around 1970.
In other words, 40 years ago in a laboratory in Holland, ONE aborted fetus–aborted for reasons unknown to us–had it’s embryonic stem cells harvested. In a process not unlike sourdough starter, those cells from that ONE fetus have promulgated into a line of stem cells used all over the world.
The Pro-Life Politic movement spin on this issue is this:
Now, I don’t know about you, but that headline makes it sound to me as though PepsiCo is using truckloads of babies and squeezing them like apples in a cider press. And so it goes as this article has done a general whip-round of Facebook, prayer chains, Christian playgroups and anywhere else the grapevine births an urban legend. The headline of the article (found at Bound4Life.com) seems purposely misleading and incendiary to me. Dead!Babies!In!Diet Pepsi!
What the article fails to mention is that this line of stem cells is now used in scientific research in much the same way as petri dishes and formaldehyde. It is used not only by this Semonyx company to test for flavour-enhancers but by medical research teams who are developing cancer treatments, Alzheimer’s treatments, diabetes treatments…the HEK293 stem cell line is SO ubiquitous that a Google Search for “HEK293 in Medical Research” yields upwards of 294,000 results. Chances are pretty good that every one who has ever passed along the article about Dead Babies In Pepsi has also prayed for a relative or church brethren stricken with some ailment–and being kept alive by medicines that resulted from HEK293 research.
Now, lest you think I’m sitting here thinking “aw, it’s no big deal! What’s one little baby?” let me just say that I am no fan of abortion. It IS an issue I struggle with, because I think our response as a Christian community over the years has more often than not lacked the Grace of our calling.
And I happen to think this particular handling of this particular story ALSO lacks the Grace of our calling. Are we so eager to make a point about medical ethics that we will forgo the basic ethics of truth-telling?
I know a lot of the people who have received this article are relatively new to the subject of bioethics. They may not realise just how much of their life is altered by scientific research they would find ethically repugnant. But I bet many of them routinely celebrate the 4th of July, Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day and Easter; all holidays that honour the sacrifice of other human beings that enable our way of life. We accept that soldiers die to protect our freedom and ideals. We accept that brain-dead individuals are taken off life support to harvest their organs and thus prolong life for others. I don’t know that I’m finding it THAT much of a stretch to say that this one fetus has had the tragedy of interrupted life redeemed in a way by the salvation her cells have brought the world over. Sure, a sweeter Diet Pepsi is no big deal. But my friend Joan, alive today after a battle with lymphoma, owes her life in part to the baby whose cells started HEK293 so many decades ago. My friends on the Arthritis Support boards who take Remicade, Enbrel, and any other biologic medicine** owe their higher functioning to Baby HEK293. Nearly all the women for whom we wear pink ribbons owe their lives and can trace their victory in the battle against Breast Cancer to research done with HEK293 cells.
It’s a hard choice, and one that I’ve agonised over since the issue of Stem Cell Research first came to my attention a decade ago. The place I’ve arrived at is to believe that research should continue using the existing lines, and that no more lines should be created from Embryonic cells.
The fact that Baby HEK293 never got to be born is truly sad. That others live as a result of her sacrifice is perhaps an example of “all things working together for good.”
No, the end doesn’t justify the means but it can sweeten the tears.
*I do realise that the medically and scientifically correct term is actually “fetus”. However, since I am directing these arguments primarily at the pro-life segment, and in pro-life terminology anything after conception is a “baby”. So that’s why we’re going with the pro-life operational definition as opposed to the scientific operational definition.
**Just for the record, I do personally try my best to avoid any product I know to be directly resultant from stem cell research. I have elected to forgo biologic treatment of my RA because of stem cell research and its role in developing those medicines. But that is very much a personal choice and one that I cannot force upon any other person. And to my earlier point I realise that it is nigh unto impossible to avoid it in every circumstance. But if there’s ever a case where I can say that I will not profit by another’s death, I stand on that belief. It’s also why I avoided many types of fertility treatment. And I happen to know that more than one person who sent that Pepsi article around has done IVF.