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HOME > Review > Pro-life goups protest stem cell research at Geron corporation

Menlo Park, CA - The Geron Corporation found itself in a seemingly unlikely position on Friday December 3rd: the site of a protest by two anti-abortion groups.  Geron's Menlo Park headquarters may seem like a strange place for pro-life groups to stage a protest.  Menlo Park, like most other Bay Area communities, is progressive and politically moderate.  About half of it's 32,000 residents are college graduates; about half work within the technology industry.  Geron Corporation, a nine-year-old biotech firm, describes itself as "the leading biotechnology company focused on human aging."  Geron Corporation, however, has found itself on the ramparts of abortion-foes' latest battlefield: stem cell research. The three-hour protest, which reportedly kept some Geron employees from coming to work, may be only an opening salvo.

The protest was peaceful.  Media reports placed the number of protesters between 20 and 45.  They waved signs bearing pictures of aborted fetuses and sang hymns.  At one point, protesters tried to meet with Geron officials, but only got as far as a security guard.  But the small, quiet nature of the protest shouldn't belie it's importance.  Two notable names in the pro-life movement led the protest: Troy Newman, director of Operation Rescue West, and Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition.  These two, along with Rev. Philip Benham, Director of Operation Save America, Jeff White, a national and regional Operation Rescue leader and a dozen others are co-defendants in a federal justice department suit filed under the Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances Act.  Their trial is scheduled to begin January 19 of next year.  Why have national figures in the abortion debate targeted stem cell research, and Geron in particular?  At the heart of the matter is the same philosophical question that is at the root of the abortion debate: when does life begin?
Geron and the biotech industry in general gained the attention of the anti-abortion movement last year when University of Wisconsin researchers announced that they had isolated human, embryonic stem cells.  Stem cells are undifferentiated fetal cells that develop into anyone of the two hundred and ten different cell types in the human body.  Geron funded the University of Wisconsin work.  The company's researchers envision the ability to grow new human tissue capable of repairing heart muscle, bones, nerves, skin, eyes and perhaps even brain tissue.  The stem cells isolated at the University of Wisconsin and in other Geron research come from the tissue of aborted fetuses and embryos -- fertilized human eggs.  The frozen eggs are discarded from fertility clinics after parents already have children or decide they no longer want them.

Members of the pro-life movement, who believe that life begins at conception, obviously oppose stem cell research.  For them, it is akin to experimenting on human beings.  Abortion foes would argue that the fetus and even the frozen embryo have a soul.  Mahoney, Newman and their ilk label stem cell research using frozen embryos as murder, just as they do abortion.  It is more than just a moral debate for the anti-abortion activists.  For them, it is nothing less than a jihad.  On the Operation Rescue West website, Newman even compares himself and the others involved in the federal lawsuit to Biblical saints.  "I believe in what I am doing.  I believe God has called me to this ministry of saving children from abortion, and I know the other leaders feel the same way," he said.  Proponents of Geron's research counter that the potential medical benefits make the research morally acceptable.  Many of them would also argue that life begins much later than the embryonic or fetal stages in human development.

Last year, when Geron announced the isolation of stem cells, Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, relayed his thoughts on the morality of the issue for MSNBC.com.  "My own view is that it would be wrong to make embryos just for research.  That would be creating potential people just as guinea pigs or products," Caplan said.  "But if an embryo already exists, then it seems to me morally acceptable to use it for research since it will never become a human being.  It will either be destroyed or frozen unused.  It is one thing to create embryos for research but morally different to use what was made for another reason but is now to be destroyed.  "If 'spare' embryos can be used, then I think the moral needs of the sick and dying outweigh the moral reservations felt about using this type of embryo in research," he concluded.  So it would seem the battle lines have been drawn.  Geron shows no signs of slowing down in their promising research.  In less than a decade they have secured a number of patents.  This past spring, the company patented a technology called "telomerase expression," which allows cells to keep replicating.  The company also owns a process for harvesting and developing stem cells.

Geron and its brethren in the biotech industry may face opposition other than anti-abortion activists, however.  Many conservative federal legislators are leery of the moral questions surrounding stem cell research.  In 1995 Congress made it illegal for federal dollars to fund stem cell research, leaving it to private companies, like Geron, to fund research until early 1998 when the Clinton administration reversed it's position on this issue.  The congress then got involved in the fight, and the NIH was forced again to reverse it's decision.  There have even been attempts in Congress in the last two years to legislate or even criminalize somatic cell nuclear transfer, the process that could lead to cloning, and may be necessary for Geron to reach it's goals.  In fact, earlier this year, Geron bought Roslin Bio-Med, the Scottish company formed by the scientists who cloned Dolly the sheep.  But Geron is not without its supporters, both in and outside of the biotech industry.  A number of patient groups for diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, stroke and even cancer have given Geron's research their support.  The groups have formed a coalition urging the government to reverse its position on federal funding for stem cell research.  The moral debate over stem cell research may have only just begun, but will likely continue on into the foreseeable future. It may have been quiet, but this protest may just have been ground zero.

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