by Richard M. Doerflinger
July 23, 1999
Ask Americans what problems most afflict our nation, and a decline in moral values ranks near the top of the list. Yet to hear some lawmakers, scientists and even ethicists talk, you would think the problem with medical research today is an excess of morality.
This is clear in the debate on embryonic stem cell research. These primitive cells can potentially produce a variety of cells and tissues needed by the human body. The moral problem is this: Harvesting the cells from a live human embryo kills the embryo. Yet the Clinton Administration insists this should not stand in the way of medical progress. On July 14 the White House issued assurances that the embryos will be destroyed "in an ethically sound manner."
That's right. Despite a law passed by Congress every year since 1995, banning federal funding of destructive embryo research, our government is poised to issue guidelines on how to "ethically" destroy human life.
The co-chair of the task force assigned this challenge is Dr. Ezra Davidson, who came to Congress's attention in the early 1980s due to his federally funded experiments on low-income black and Hispanic women in south central Los Angeles. He had a new diagnostic tool, the fetoscope, but did not know how often its use might cause miscarriages. So he practiced using it on women planning to have abortions -- reasoning that if it killed unborn children already slated for death, it would do no real harm.
When Congress found out about Davidson's project, it made sure something like this could not happen again. It overwhelmingly approved a law requiring all federally funded research projects to treat unborn children intended for abortion with the same respect as children intended for live birth. No longer would the "private" abortion decisions of these children's mothers be used to justify spending public funds to harm them.
But now, Dr. Davidson is back in the saddle -- and so is his ethical approach. "Spare" embryos in fertility clinics will eventually be discarded anyway, argues the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- so if a researcher destroys them for their stem cells, he isn't doing any real harm.
By this argument, NIH may as well start buying vital organs from condemned prisoners in China, or conducting lethal experiments on terminally ill patients in VA hospitals. After all, they'll die anyway, so how can we be doing any real harm?
This is what the White House means by "ethically sound" killing. The NIH will order only the killing of "spare" embryos created by fertility clinics, not embryos created solely for research.
In 1994, when the NIH proposed creating human embryos for research purposes, even newspapers with pro-abortion editorial policies like the Washington Post called the idea "unconscionable." There was something too thoroughly demeaning and cold-blooded about creating human life in order to destroy it. In the end, President Clinton rejected funding for such experiments, and he is holding to that position now.
But it is becoming clear that this position is merely a transitional step -- a "wedge" to open the door to government-sponsored embryo research.
This came home to me recently, when I spoke on this issue in England to ethicists and scientists who advise a major pharmaceutical firm. What I found was a unanimous view among British scientists that embryonic stem cell research will probably be useless for transplant purposes -- unless it uses cloning to create human embryos for destruction.
Why? The answer is: Tissue compatibility. Patients' bodies will reject transplanted cells from a foreign source -- and many scientists think this problem will not be solved in the foreseeable future. Hence, in Great Britain the debate is not about "spare" embryos at all, but about use of cloning to produce embryos genetically identical to each individual patient. Each time a patient needs a transplant, he or she will donate some body cells, which will be used to make numerous embryonic twin brothers or sisters -- who will then be killed for their stem cells.
This British discussion puts into perspective some recent events in our own country. In May the Geron Corporation, which has funded research in obtaining stem cells from "spare" embryos, announced that it was taking over Roslin Bio-Med of Scotland, which has pioneered animal cloning and produced "Dolly" the sheep. Geron says the merger will enable it to combine the "complementary breakthrough technologies" of stem cell research and cloning "to enhance and accelerate the development of new transplantation therapies." The following month, President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) softened its earlier stand against creating human embryos for stem cell research, saying only that such creation and destruction of life should not be funded "at this time."
Now I realize the significance of these events. They know. Geron and NBAC know that the much-touted use of "spare" embryos may well fail to produce the promised results. But they also know that the "unconscionable" step of using taxpayers' funds to create human embryos for destruction could doom the entire enterprise in the eyes of public opinion. So expect them to proceed with "spare" embryos, perfecting the art of culturing stem cells and directing them to differentiate in the lab. And when they stand on the threshold of transplantation into humans, expect them to announce that they could save many lives, if only we will allow this one last step...
The real solution is to refuse to start down that road. Genetically compatible tissue for transplantation can be produced by using and adapting patients' own adult stem cells. These are now known to be far more versatile than was once imagined -- and they pose no serious moral problem. (For a fine statement on this subject signed by dozens of medical and scientific experts, see www.stemcellresearch.org.) The question is: Will Congress see what's really happening in time to stop the NIH's immoral crusade?
(Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.)