Abortion, being the divisive and highly emotional issue that it is, unfortunately makes people jump quickly to conclusions, and in some cases snap decisions. A perfect example of how emotions make us leap before we look occurred when in early 2012, Oklahoma State Senator Ralph Shortey hastily proposed a bill that would ban food “which contains aborted human fetuses in the ingredients.”
Shortey decided to take action after he reportedly heard news through the pro life group Children of God for Life that Pepsi and others were partnering with a company called Synomyx that was using stem cells in researching taste substitutes for sugar. The Internet, and it appears the senator from Oklahoma, got caught up in this to the point where people started believing that fetal tissue was actually ending up in the foods we eat.
While Shortey played damage control by saying he didn’t think human fetuses were in our foods, it’s hard to dispute what he hurriedly tried to pass into law.
Stem Cells for Taste Testing?
Senomyx has isolated receptors on cells that detect taste, then added them to HEK293 cells, the stem cell line in question. The company can then test countless additives to see which get the desired taste response much more quickly and efficiently than using people in studies.
There is certainly room for intellectual debate, but the reality of this subject is much more nuanced than “Pepsi and a biotech company are using fetuses in research.”
The Facts of HEK293 and Pepsi
The stem cell line, HEK293, was originally generated from kidney cells taken from an aborted fetus in the early ’70s. Fast forward 40 years and a current stem cell line (descendants, if you will) are being used in everything from potential cancer vaccinations to developing a drug to treat cystic fibrosis. No new fetal tissue is involved in the research.
Stem cell researchers get their lines from three main sources:
1. Cell lines that already exist (e.g. HEK293).
2. Embryos not used in fertility treatment (which would otherwise be destroyed).
3. Embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), a technique for creating an ovum from a donor nucleus.
One argument in favor of stem cell lines like HEK293 is that even if one believes stem cells should not be derived from an aborted fetus, since we are so far removed from an event that cannot be undone, why not harvest those cells and continually use them for the sake of potentially transforming breakthroughs? Mind you, creating fake taste enhancers does not fall under that category. A vaccine for cancer? Absolutely.
Bioethics is a difficult subject, with many grey areas. What’s much easier to argue is that we don’t need more ways to falsely flavor our foods, especially since optimal health can’t be found in sugar substitutes. We don’t need more artificial enhancers. Rather, we need to discover how natural foods can be incredibly flavorful, naturally.