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."
The only clear criticism on the council came from Dr. Paul McHugh, psychiatry department chairman at Johns Hopkins University. He warned that Hurlbut could be making a "hybrid which would be super-human in some kind of way." Hurlbut responded: "You create an entity that never rises to the level of what can properly be called a living being." McHugh suggested Hurlbut was making "a doomed hybrid" that would not be permitted to become a human being. "Not doomed," responded Hurlbut, "Only doomed if it's alive first."
Hurlbut, a conservative himself, was supported at the meeting by conservative Catholic George's questions. He asked: "So you, yourself, would not want to see the proposal go forward unless it could be shown that in the human case, we would not be creating an embryo?" "Yeah," Hurlbut replied, "that would violate the very principle we're trying to defend." They agreed animal experimentation would come first.
When I asked Sen. Brownback about Hurlbut's inquiry, he took a wait-and-see approach on grounds that nobody yet knows enough about it. Brownback then cited progress being made in using non-embryonic stem cells. He pointed to the recent report by Prof. Song Chang-hun of South Korea's Chosun University about a 37-year-old spinal cord patient, in a wheelchair for 19 years, standing up and walking with help of a walker 40 days after being treated with umbilical cord stem cells.
Bill Hurlbut, however, believes embryonic research is inevitable and does not see sufficient lines of stem cells available to make progress. Before his initiative can achieve its purpose of ending the impasse, substantial scientific progress is necessary. The larger task may be making ethical and moral decisions about non-human cloning.