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A Clarifying Five Years
Stem-cell politics under a microscope.


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In the five years since President Bush announced his policy on the federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, his opponents have accused him of putting ideology before science and of subordinating sound public policy to sectarian religious scruples. The over-the-top rhetoric has been accompanied by grotesquely exaggerated promises about the therapeutic value of embryonic stem cells and outright lies, such as false claims that the Bush policy banned all stem-cell research. The truth is that the policy bans no stem-cell research, and while it forbids the use of federal funds in research involving new embryo destruction, it authorizes funding of research using embryonic-stem-cell lines created prior to the announcement of his policy on August 9, 2001.

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Then there was the manipulation of the public by embryonic-stem-cell activists. Politicians initially made their case against the Bush policy by claiming that cryopreserved embryos in assisted-reproduction clinics are “going to die anyway,” then promised rejection-proof “biological repair kits” that would require the deliberate creation and destruction of cloned human embryos. They declare dismissively that human embryos are simply microscopic “clumps of cells,” ignoring the biological fact that we all began our lives as embryos — that the term “embryo” refers to a stage of development in the life of an enduring individual, whose moral worth hardly depends on size or appearance.

The stem-cell debate came to a head late last month, as Congress passed a bill to authorize funding for research involving the destruction of embryos, and President Bush used his first veto to stop it. The vote and the veto were long anticipated, and neither taught us much we didn’t already know about the issue. But a closely related stem-cell story turned out to be far more revealing.

Along with the controversial bill to overturn President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding of embryo-destructive research, Congress considered another bill — S. 2754, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act. This piece of legislation would have authorized funding for scientists to explore techniques for producing embryonic-like stem cells without the need to destroy human embryos — in other words, all the scientific benefits of embryonic-stem-cell research without the ethical problems that have generated this divisive debate. And unlike the use of embryos left over in fertility clinics, these alternative methods would allow us to produce genetically controlled pluripotent stem-cell lines, which scientists argue are crucial for building useful models of dreaded diseases and perhaps someday developing rejection-proof therapies. So they would give us the possible advantages of cloning without the need to engage in that morally abhorrent practice.

The “alternative methods” bill was cosponsored by Senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, normally bitter opponents in the embryo-research debate. It was passed in the Senate by a vote of 100 to 0. The bill also received a huge majority in the House, but it was brought to a vote under a suspension of the rules, and it unexpectedly did not receive the two-thirds it needed to pass.

In the hours before the vote, after seeing the bill sail through the Senate without opposition, Rep. Michael Castle (lead sponsor of the bill to support embryo-destructive research) distributed a set of false and self-contradictory talking points, arguing that what the “alternatives” bill would fund was both illegal and already supported by the NIH and that such research didn’t exist and would pull resources away from other important science. None of it was true, but the vehemence of Castle and his colleagues was deeply telling.

What exactly were these members voting against when they chose to stop the Specter-Santorum bill? They voted against helping American scientists find ways to obtain the benefits of embryonic-stem-cell research and so-called “therapeutic cloning” without the moral hazards and political controversy. They voted against finding common ground.

How promising is this common ground? It is always hard to predict the progress of science, but it seems more and more real each month. The scientific methods the bill would support have shown serious, if preliminary, promise in the past year. And they are not purely speculative, or even just limited to animal work. Last August, scientists at Harvard showed they could turn a human skin cell into the equivalent of a human embryonic stem cell without needing to destroy an embryo. Other scientists — Americans, Australians, Japanese, and others — have pursued this and similar techniques and made undeniable progress.

More work remains to be done, the outcome of which is of course still unknown, just as is the case with embryonic-stem-cell research. But surely the prospect of a way around the ethical dilemmas should attract our attention and support. Surely it makes sense for the government to invest in finding such a fruitful common ground.

But Castle’s minority voted instead for continuing the controversy. They apparently preferred the “issue” of stem cells over the science of stem cells. And they were clearly concerned that effective scientific alternatives would take their issue away.

Such political worries are perhaps understandable. Last year, the nonpartisan Genetics and Public Policy Center published a poll that asked “would you be willing to delay progress in medical research in order to find sources of stem cells that do not involve embryo destruction?” Forty-six percent of respondents said they would accept a delay. (And now that we know Hwang Woo Suk’s much ballyhooed cloning research in South Korea was a fraud, there is no reason to think cloning research is ahead of research that does not involve the destruction of embryos anyway.) The poll also asked supporters of the bill that would overturn President Bush’s funding policy if their views would change should techniques to develop embryonic-like cells without the destruction of embryos become available. They found that support for the embryo-destructive bill would drop by a quarter.

Some opponents of the Bush stem-cell policy have argued that we should support any and all stem-cell research, and not limit any particular type, so that science can advance on all fronts at once. The president has argued that we should support all ethical stem-cell research, so we may advance medical science while always respecting human dignity and protecting human life.

But those members of the House who voted against the Specter-Santorum bill did not choose all effective avenues of science or all ethical avenues of science. Instead, they would support only ethically controversial stem-cell research. They would support the research only if it involves the destruction of embryos. Otherwise, they are not interested.

That is not a position for the advancement of science on all fronts, but for keeping a political issue alive even as science advances and leaves it behind. It is hard to imagine a more blatant example of political cynicism overpowering a constructive solution. As the president put it: “It makes no sense to say that you’re in favor of finding cures for terrible diseases as quickly as possible, and then block a bill that would authorize funding for promising and ethical stem cell research.”

The president has made clear he will use his executive powers to accomplish as much as he can of what the Specter-Santorum bill would have done. The search for ethical ways of pursuing stem-cell research will not end with Castle’s gambit. But the notion that President Bush’s stem-cell opponents are motivated simply by the desire to advance science on all possible fronts has been exposed as a lie by the House minority’s shameful ploy. What they want, it appears, is to use stem-cell research for their political ends. And what they believe, rather perversely, is that support for embryo destruction is the new litmus test for being pro-science. Who, we are left to ask, are the real moderates now?

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Eric Cohen is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of the ethics and technology journal The New Atlantis.



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