The misleading debate on stem cell research

Posted: Aug 20, 2004 12:00 AM

 Addressing the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan told the delegates that in the debate over funding research on embryonic stem cells, we face a choice between "the future and the past; between reason and ignorance; between true compassion and mere ideology." Not satisfied with that contrast, he elaborated that "a few of these folks (who oppose funding this research) are just grinding a political axe, and they should be ashamed of themselves."

 It is Reagan who ought to be ashamed. As the mother of a 10-year-old with juvenile diabetes, I yearn more than most for breakthroughs in scientific research. My son takes between four and six shots of insulin daily and must test his blood sugar by pricking his finger the same number of times. This disease affects every major organ system in the body and places him in the high-risk category for more problems than I care to name. When he settles down to sleep at night, I can never be entirely sure that he won't slip into a coma from a sudden low blood sugar. How happily I would take the disease upon myself if I could only spare him! So please don't lecture me about grinding a political axe.

 But like millions of others, I am troubled by the idea of embryonic stem cell research. It crosses a moral line that this society should be loath to cross -- even for the best of motives. Taking the stem cells from human embryos kills them. Before turning to the arguments of the pro-research side, permit a word about the pro-life position. Too many pro-life activists, it seems to me, have argued this case on the wrong grounds. My inbox is full of missives about the scientific misfires that stem cell research has led to, as well as breathless announcements that adult stem cells actually hold more promise.

 This is neither an honest nor a productive line of argument. The reason pro-lifers oppose embryonic stem cell research is because they hold life sacred at all stages of development. They ought not to deny this or dress it up in a lab coat to give it greater palatability. The moral case is an honorable one. Leave it at that.

 Proponents of embryonic stem cell research point out that some of the embryos currently sitting in freezers in fertility clinics around the world are going to be washed down the drain anyway -- which surely kills them, and without any benefit to mankind. This is true. There are several answers to this. The first is that a society that truly honored each human life would take a different approach. Fertility clinics and the couples who use them would understand the moral obligation not to create more embryos than they can reasonably expect to transfer to the mother's uterus. In cases where this was impossible, the embryos could be placed for adoption with other infertile couples (this is already a widespread practice).

 Once you begin to pull apart a human embryo and use its parts, you have thoroughly dehumanized it. You have justified taking one life to (speculatively) save another. Despite the rosy future painted by Ron Reagan and others, those of us who follow the field with avid interest have been disappointed by avenues of research that have failed, thus far, to pan out. Still, opponents of stem cell research should not argue that the research is going to be fruitless. No one knows. The problem is that this kind of research is morally problematic. Germany, Italy, Portugal, Luxembourg and Austria ban it. (The United States does not. We simply withhold federal funding.)

 There is something else, as well. While the idea of growing spare parts -- say, spinal nerves for a paraplegic -- in a Petri dish seems wonderful, it may not be possible to do so from embryonic stem cells. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 12, scientists have been frustrated by their inability to get stem cells to grow into endoderm (the cells that make up the liver, stomach and pancreas), whereas they can coax them to become heart and nerve tissue.

 "Scientists speculate," the Journal explained, "that might be because the embryo early on needs blood and nerve tissue to grow, while endoderm-based organs aren't needed until later." If we can use the stem cells of normal human embryos for research, by what logic would we shrink from allowing an embryo to reach a later stage of development in order to study better how endoderm forms?

 These are treacherous moral waters we're setting sail in, and those who hesitate ought not to be scorned as ignorant, uncompassionate or blinkered.