the debate over whether the federal government should fund embryonic
stem-cell research (ESCR), our country is being offered a true Faustian
bargain. In return for a hoped-for potential it is no more
than that of deriving desperately desired medical breakthroughs
in the treatment of such afflictions as Parkinson's disease, paraplegia,
and diabetes, we are being asked to give the nation's imprimatur
to reducing human life into a mere natural resource to be exploited
Given the stakes, our lawmakers owe it to their country to take
the time to thoroughly understand the issue before speaking in public
and taking sides. Unfortunately, Senators Orrin Hatch's and Trent
Lott's recent statements in favor of embryonic research exhibited
stunning ignorance regarding the subject about which they opined.
Making matters worse, the press quickly leaped upon the statements
of these pro-life senators as proof that embryonic research is moral,
ethical, and scientifically justified, when the reverse is actually
Senator Hatch's attempt to explain his pro ESCR funding position
to Chris Matthews on Hardball on June 20, demonstrated that
he doesn't know an embryo from a stem cell. Take the following statements:
"After a long period of study and prayer, I found that pluripotent
cells are not full human beings but can be very, very beneficial
as used by science to help with all kinds of maladies
"It is appropriate to use pluripotent cells but inappropriate
to use totipotent cells because a pluripotent cell cannot be made
into a full human being. A totipotent cell can actually be replicated
into a human being through even cloning." (Totipotent cells are
the first to appear after fertilization and can actually develop
into a completely new embryo as occurs during identical
twinning. Pluripotent [stem] cells appear a bit later. They are
"undifferentiated cells" that can develop into any body part
which is why researchers wish to study them.)
"Life begins in the mother's womb, not in a refrigerator."
In stating that the feds should fund the study of pluripotent cells
but not totipotent cells, Senator Hatch confused several essential
points. First, pluripotent cells and totipotent cells are not the
same thing as the embryo itself. Rather, these cells are constituent
parts of the embryonic whole just as vital organs are parts
of born persons. Second, while the pluripotent cell itself may not
have the potential to develop into a full human being, the embryo
from which it is extracted does have that potential if implanted
in a woman's womb. Third, taking the pluripotent cell destroys the
embryo just as taking the heart would kill a born human being. This
is what makes embryonic stem-cell research morally objectionable.
Fourth, Senator Hatch's statement that life does not begin in a
refrigerator but in a mother's womb is bizarre. Wherever
it happens, fertilization certainly produces a new member of the
human species. Indeed, federal law explicitly prohibits federal
funding of experiments that destroy embryos outside the womb precisely
because individual human life begins at fertilization. (In order
to open the door to federal funding of ESCR, President Clinton interpreted
his way around this legal impediment to permit funding of stem-cell
research only after the destruction of the embryos already has occurred.)
Whatever one thinks of Hatch's premise, it is certainly not biology.
Senator Lott seemed to have had the same professor as Hatch on the
June 24 Meet the Press. Host Tim Russert asked Lott what
the president should do about federal funding of embryonic stem-cell
research. The Mississippi senator leaned toward supporting federal
funding on the basis that there is potential for medical advances
from experimenting with "cells before they become embryos."
No, Senator Lott, you have it backwards. Stem cells are not mere
unorganized protoplasm that somehow develops in the future into
the organic whole we call the embryo. Rather, stem cells are extracted
from existing, living embryos that are generally a week old and
already are made up of dozens or even hundreds of cells.
In the defense of the senators, these are very complex biological
issues. But the reasons why the federal government should not fund
embryonic stem-cell research are not all that complicated.
Non Embryonic Stem Cells Show Tremendous
The National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), which recommended
permitting federal funding of ESCR, also stated that using embryos
in excess of need in IVF treatments "is justifiable only if no less
morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the
research." Happily, since the NBAC recommendation, research breakthroughs
using adult stem cells and alternatives such as stem cells found
in umbilical cord blood, have been breathtaking. Here is a just
a partial list by the type of maladies that ESCR advocates hope
to ameliorate, but for which, alternative sources of therapy already
demonstrate awesome potential:
Diabetes: Three recent breakthroughs have occurred in the
fight against diabetes. First, in procedures akin to an organ
transplant, cadaver pancreatic islet cell transfers have helped
people afflicted with Type 1 diabetes to the point where they
don't have to take insulin. (They do, however, have to take anti-tissue
rejection medication.) Second, in mouse experiments, adult pancreatic
stem cells restored full insulin production in diabetic mice as
a consequence of which the treated mice lived. Finally, when diabetic
mice were treated with embryonic stem cells they produced approximately
2% of the insulin required for life. All of these mice died. Thus
it appears likely that adult stem cells and alternative surgical
therapies offer greater potential for relieving diabetes than
do embryonic stem cell therapy.
Nerve Damage: Proponents of embryonic stem cells offer
the hope that these cells might someday help heal damaged nerves,
perhaps offering a cure for paraplegia or quadriplegia many years
in the future. Yet, little noted by the media, white-blood-cell
therapy has already produced astonishing results in an 18-year-old
woman whose spinal cord was severed in an automobile accident.
Amazingly, after having the cells implanted in her spinal cord,
the woman regained control over her bladder and can now move her
toes and legs, although not yet walk.
Immune System Defects: In Los Angeles, the transplantation
of stem cells harvested from umbilical-cord blood has saved the
lives of three young boys born with defective immune systems.
Rather than receiving bone marrow transplants, the three boys
underwent stem-cell therapy. The experimental procedure worked.
Two years post-surgery, their doctors at UCLA Medical Center pronounced
the boys cured.
Neurological Disease: Scientists have discovered that stem
cells found in umbilical-cord blood can be reprogrammed to act
as healthy brain cells. At the University of South Florida (Tampa),
rats that had been genetically engineered to suffer strokes were
injected with these cells. The cells integrated seamlessly into
the surrounding brain tissue where they matured into the type
of cell appropriate for that area of the brain. Meanwhile, scientists
have learned that new neurons (brain cells) are produced in adults,
overthrowing previous scientific dogma, and offering a potential
source for stem cell harvesting. And, in another astonishing turn,
it turns out that even cadaver brains can also supply brain stem
cells. The ability to open, isolate and harness these cells
whether from umbilical cord blood or living or cadaver brains
offers great hope for future treatments of Parkinson's
disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), multiple sclerosis, and other
nerve/brain maladies without having to destroy embryos in the
ESCR May Not Work
Senators Hatch and Lott's assumed that ESCR had already demonstrated
that it could eventually lead to miracle cures. Quite the contrary.
While adult/alternative cell therapies are already treating cartilage
defects in children, systemic lupus, and helping restore vision
to patients who were legally blind just to name a few
embryonic stem-cell research has no equivalent record of success
even in animal studies. Indeed, embryonic/fetal cells have never
ameliorated one human malady.
ESCR Could be a Gateway to Cloning
Promoters of federally funding ESCR promise that initial research
would come from embryos currently stored in in-vitro-fertilization
clinic storage tanks. These embryos, they point out, are likely
to be destroyed anyway so why not use them for scientific benefit?
While this is a potent argument that appeals to the pragmatic streak
in the American character, it is actually a bit of the old "bait
and switch." Yes, initial research would use IVF embryos currently
in excess of need for impregnating women. But should ESCR prove
potentially beneficial in clinical use, some in the biotech community
claim that IVF sources would be insufficient to meet clinical need.
At that point, cloning would be required. Thus these companies vigorously
oppose congressional attempts to outlaw human cloning in the United
States. Indeed, according to recent Congressional Committee testimony
by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, cloning of embryos "are
a critical and necessary step in the production of sufficient quantities
of vigorous replacement cells for the clinical treatment of patients."
Senators Hatch and Lott support the proposed ban on human cloning.
Yet both seem completely unaware that their sympathy for the federal
funding of ESCR, if successful, could lead to the very cloning procedures
that both, to their credit, find abhorrent. Indeed, the Stem Cell
Senators may find that their pragmatism-over-principle approach
comes back to haunt them.
Embryonic stem-cell research takes us onto a path that would transform
our perception of human life into a malleable, marketable natural
resource akin to a cattle herd or copper mine to be
exploited for the benefit of the born and breathing. Unlike Hatch
and Lott, President Bush recognizes the danger, which was why he
declared his opposition to federally funded ESCR during the campaign.
He now faces fierce and intense pressure to reverse this stand
aided and abetted by the Stem Cell Senators. This is a profound
test of his moral leadership. Let us hope that the president's knees
do not buckle.