It all seemed so reasonable and straightforward. Congress’s warring factions in the stem-cell debate had agreed on a civilized plan for moving the issue forward. The U.S. Senate would vote on three bills: the bill to fund stem-cell research requiring the destruction of human embryos, already approved by the House last year; a bill to ban the use of fetal tissue from “fetus farming” (implanting human embryos in human or animal wombs in order to develop them further and harvest their body parts); and a bill to fund “alternative” avenues for obtaining versatile stem cells without destroying human embryos. President Bush said he would veto the embryonic-stem-cell bill and sign the other two — and then both sides in the debate would make their case to voters during the midterm elections.
Unexpectedly, the fly in the ointment emerged in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, after the Senate had unanimously approved the “fetus farming” and “alternatives” bills. Representatives Mike Castle and Diane DeGette, House sponsors of the embryo destruction bill, mounted a last-minute campaign against the “alternatives” bill, managing to sway or confuse enough House members that the bill narrowly failed to achieve the two-thirds support needed for approval on the suspension calendar. At this writing it is unclear how soon the House will manage to bring the bill back for consideration under regular rules, to be approved by a straight majority vote.
Whatever the final legislative outcome, this frontal attack on non-embryonic-stem-cell research is very revealing. Supporters of embryonic-stem-cell research until now have said they agree with the National Institutes of Health and most scientific groups that they simply support “funding every avenue” of stem-cell research. Now some are actively attacking any way to do pluripotent-stem-cell research that does not destroy embryos, as though creating this moral problem were an end in itself. This is exactly the opposite of the view of the American people, who, when asked, generally want to exhaust all avenues of research that are not destructive before considering any that are.
Shortly before the vote Tuesday, Rep. Castle circulated an alert to colleagues making a number of invalid arguments against H.R. 5526, the “alternative stem cells” bill. Here are his claims, followed in each case by the facts:
Claim: The bill “mandates the National Institutes of Health to support highly speculative research, some of which has been deemed unethical by the President’s own Bioethics Council and this mandated research may violate current law because embryos will be destroyed with federal dollars.”
Fact: Each part of this claim is false. The bill does not mandate “highly speculative” research (in fact, unlike Rep. Castle’s own embryonic-stem-cell bill, it explicitly prioritizes “research with the greatest potential for near-term clinical benefit”). It strictly adheres to current law in excluding any research that uses or harms embryos, and even references the definition of “human embryo” contained in current law. And it says nothing about the president’s council except that the NIH will “take into account” (that is, take a look at) techniques outlined by the council, within the bounds of the clear policy standard set forth in the bill.
Claim: The bill “takes focus away from advancing cures through federally funded embryonic-stem-cell research from excess IVF embryos.”
Fact: In other words, it is another way to advance those cures, which all supporters of embryonic-stem-cell research claimed to support as well — until now. This is a very strange argument, when all supporters of ESC research in the Senate just voted to support this bill. Have Senators Specter, Hatch, and Harkin lost “focus”?
Claim: “Alternative methods described in legislation are highly speculative and are either simply ideas or unproven in a human model.”
Fact: This is untrue. There are no alternative methods described in the legislation — it only sets the goal (cells with versatility and abilities like those of embryonic stem cells) and the policy limit in current law (no harming of human embryos). At least a dozen respected studies in the most prestigious science journals — Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, etc. — have found pluripotent capacities in some stem cells that do not come from embryos, and these bear further investigation.
Claim: ”Time wasted on exploring speculative methods of derivation delays the research even more, which holds up treatments.”
Fact: This is far truer of embryonic stem cells themselves, which have been found in animal trials to be prone to uncontrolled growth, tumor formation, and other problems. All the stem-cell treatments currently in use, and currently being tested in hundreds of clinical trials (see the NIH website www.clinicaltrials.gov), use stem cells that are not from embryos.
By contrast, embryonic stem cells are speculative in their human use, and an entire branch of the field (“therapeutic cloning”) has been a consistent story of failure and fraud.
Claim: “NIH can and does already conduct this research; therefore, the legislation is unnecessary.”
Fact: Note that this argument is in the same document with the claim that the research would violate current law. These arguments cancel each other out because they cannot both be true. The reality is that the NIH could fund this research now, but it generally has not shown a great deal of interest in pursuing avenues of stem-cell research that may resolve the ethical problem for millions of Americans.
Claim: “Bill’s SOLE purpose is to provide “political cover” for those who do not support stem cell research to say they do.”
Fact: This is clearly untrue, since it was supported by 100 senators, including the 63 who also support funding of embryonic-stem-cell research.
Claim: “Leading researchers and Nobel Laureates say ‘S. 2754 is unneeded and if passed would deflect from the current urgent need for generating new stem-cell lines from excess IVF-derived blastocysts.’”
Fact: Same answer as above. The Senate recognized that the goal here should be to advance science, not to advance embryo destruction for its own sake.
Claim: “Legislation never went through committee process and was not able to be amended.”
Fact: Exactly like H.R. 810, the embryo-destruction bill!
Claim: “Could NEVER be charged for not supporting stem cell research if you vote against this bill.”
Fact: Of course you could be so accused, for so you would be. If you only vote for stem-cell research when you can destroy embryos to do it, you don’t support stem-cell research — you just support destroying embryos.
This latest attack on other ways to pursue stem-cell research reveals a new and more intolerant side to the ideology of the embryonic-stem-cell campaign. Now it is not enough to include embryo destruction in the category of acceptable biomedical research — one must wed oneself to embryo destruction, forsaking all other avenues. One must insist that stem-cell research must not move forward to advance knowledge or treat diseases unless it involves destroying human life. This is a dark and narrow vision of science that sets it directly at odds with morality and common sense. In the end, it is as anti-science as it is anti-life. Reps. Castle and DeGette may have won a temporary procedural victory in the stem-cell debate. But they have revealed a very dark and narrow side to the pro-embryo-research campaign that should not please patients wanting cures, concerned Americans wanting ethical restraint on science, or constituents seeking common sense on contentious issues.
— Richard M. Doerflinger is deputy director of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.