WASHINGTON -- Since the Dec. 3 meeting of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, the struggle over embryonic stem cell research has been altered. Dr. Bill Hurlbut, a physician and Stanford biology professor, proposed a cloning-like procedure to harvest stem cells that would prevent even beginning the creation of a human organism or anything with human characteristics.
Hurlbut made the presentation to his colleagues on the council as a "third option" in the "current conflict over the procurement of embryonic stem cells." He suggested it as "a technological solution to our moral impasse." Robbie George, the eminent Catholic layman and Princeton law professor, supports this line of inquiry. Only one council member opposed Hurlbut's proposal.
The impact of this new development on anti-cloning legislation cannot be determined. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Senate sponsor of the bill to ban cloning, has not taken a position on Hurlbut's initiative while lauding use of adult stem cells for medical research. The Dec. 3 discussion at the President's Council only begins exploration of the moral considerations as the scientific inquiry proceeds.
Opponents of President Bush's ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research say they are against human cloning. But if stem cells prove the medical boon that proponents claim, they will need to be produced by something like cloning. That is why Senate liberals in the last Congress used the filibuster to stop the anti-cloning bill passed by an 86-vote margin in the House on Feb. 27, 2003. The 2004 elections produced an apparent net gain of five anti-cloning senators, still 10 short of the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster.
Prior to the Dec. 3 meeting of the President's Council, Hurlbut shopped his proposal around Capitol Hill with mixed reaction. Critics contended the process simultaneously creates and destroys human clones in collecting stem cells and thus fails on ethical grounds.
In his presentation to the council, Hurlbut asserted the controversy over embryo destruction for the purpose of fighting disease "is unlikely to be resolved through deliberation or debate." He added: "A purely political solution will leave our country bitterly divided, eroding the social support and sense of noble purpose that is essential for the public funding of biomedical science."
To resolve "this apparently irresolvable impasse," Hurlbut continued, "we believe there may be morally uncontroversial ways to obtain embryonic stem cells." He then said entities "that lack the qualities and characteristics of an organism appear to be capable of generating embryonic stem cells or their functional equivalent."