A solution to the stem cell debate?

Posted: Jul 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Medical science may be able to settle a contentious and damaging fight between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and yet few have taken any notice.

 Appearing before the Senate Labor, Health, and Human Services subcommittee last week, Dr. William Hurlbut, a professor in the Human Biology program at Stanford and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, outlined a number of scientific methods for obtaining embryonic stem cells that would not involve destroying developing human embryos. This is big news. Yet Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, displaying a prodigious capacity for missing the point, brushed it off, declaring that "We already know how to derive stem cells."

 Well, yes, but the argument we are engaged in concerns whether it is moral or ethical to use normal, fully functioning human embryos as mere research material. If we can produce embryonic stem cells some other way, we will be able to obtain the full benefits of medical research using these cells (bearing in mind that the potential for cures has been wildly oversold by advocates) without transgressing important moral boundaries.

 Not so very long ago, Democrats expressed moral qualms about harvesting human embryos for research. In 1999, President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission issued a report on "Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research" and cautioned that "In our judgment, the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research." Yet today, only six years later, those who raise ethical objections to unrestricted embryonic stem cell research are dismissed as troglodytes. And those who propound alternatives to destroying human embryos must struggle to get a hearing.

 The President's Council on Bioethics has outlined the possible alternatives to destroying live embryos, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. There are at least four different possibilities, including one introduced by Dr. Hurlbut called "altered nuclear transfer." Essentially a variant of cloning technology, ANT would transfer the nucleus of an adult cell into an enucleated egg and electrically stimulate it to induce cell division. Unlike traditional cloning however, ANT would first alter the adult nucleus or the receiving cell, or both, to ensure that an embryo would not grow. Stem cells, however, would grow, and these could then be used for medical research without any ethical concerns at all since a human embryo will not have been destroyed in order to obtain them. It would be the moral equivalent of tissue cultures.

 Advocates of unrestricted embryo destruction make two principal arguments; first, that 400,000 embryos left over from fertility treatments are going to be thrown away anyway, and second, that an embryo is not a human being because it is extremely tiny.

 As to the first argument, the RAND Law and Health Initiative examined the matter and found that while nearly 400,000 embryos remain frozen in fertility clinics around the nation, only about 11,000 of these have been designated for medical research. The vast majority are held for future family building. Of those 11,000, only about 65 percent would survive the thawing process, resulting in 7,334 embryos. Only about 25 percent of those would likely develop to the blastocyst stage, and even fewer would be able to produce stem cells. Honest proponents of embryonic research admit that cloning of embryos would probably be necessary to obtain the optimum number of stem cell lines.

 As to the second objection: Is size morally relevant? Is a 21-year-old man three times as precious as a 7-year-old boy? We can barely see an embryo with the naked eye, yet, as Dr. Hurlbut points out, from the vantage point of space, no human is visible on the Earth's surface. He quotes philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, who noted more than 300 years ago that "human existence is located between infinities -- between the infinitely large and the infinitely small." Pascal continued, "By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like a dot -- by thought I encompass the universe."

 And by seeking to do the moral thing, we find our proper place in the universe.