Stem Cell Sleight-of-Hand

The wheels of scientific progress are turning inexorably, it seems. In the past few years, medical researchers stunned the world with groundbreaking advances in our understanding of the human body and how to treat diseases that threaten it. Scottish scientists announced in 1997 that they had successfully engineered Dolly, a cloned sheep, using an adult sheep’s cells. Just this year, following close on Dolly’s heels, was the announcement that researchers had isolated “human pluripotent stem cells,” which have the ability to become a wide range of human tissues and thus herald treatments for maladies ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s disease.

Of course, there is a darker side to the turning wheels of progress, one that gives many cause to fear that they may be spinning out of control. Mere months after the creation of Dolly, Dr. Richard Seed, a man with three Harvard degrees but no medical qualifications, sparked a brushfire of media attention by announcing he would go one step further than scientists had gone with Dolly by attempting to engineer a clone of himself. And stem cells, the body’s cellular templates for a host of cell types, including blood, nerve, and muscle cells, carry their own ethical dilemmas. These “magic cells,” which researchers claim offer the best prospects for curing many diseases, are harvested from tissues from aborted fetuses, the destruction of “spare” embryos from fertility clinics, and even cloned embryos created specially for this purpose.

Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, described the new methods for obtaining these cells to a Senate subcommittee in a hearing last December on the institute’s recent decision to fund the research. In research published in November 1998, Dr. John Gearhart of the Johns Hopkins University and Dr. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin presented their results. Thomson and his team culled their stem cells from embryos left “unused” after in-vitro fertility treatments, while Gearhart derived pluripotent stem cells, Varmus reported, “from primordial gonadal tissue which was taken from a non-living fetus.” One can only wonder at the use of evasive terminology like “non-living,” but, after all, to admit a fetus is dead is to concede that at one point it must have been alive—an inconvenient truth that a quick turn of phrase can avoid.

Complicating the question are the potential dramatic benefits of stem cell research. Varmus outlined these benefits to the Senate subcommittee. Stem cells, he said, “could lead to the discovery of new ways to prevent and treat birth defects and even cancer, . . . could allow researchers to study the beneficial and toxic effects of candidate drugs in many different cell types,” and could even be used to develop replacement tissues “that could be transplanted into patients for the purpose of repairing injury and pathological processes.” The possible benefits seem compelling, but for the methods used to harvest them. The NIH, their focus never straying far from the benefits, seem all too eager to pay only lip service to ethics, that niggling insect that so often seems to stand in the way of “progress.”

Not to worry, claimed the National Institutes of Health, which asked scientists, bioethicists, and religious leaders to grapple with the issues. Americans would not be asked to compromise deeply held beliefs to fund what a select group of elites call “progress”—or would they?

For its part, the NIH claim that they are seriously considering the ethical ramifications of funding stem cell research. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) stated that its Office of General Counsel, the division that produced the legal grounds for approving the funding, “is, of course, very sensitive to the difficult legal and ethical concerns posed by this kind of research.” But a close look at their legal justification belies those claims and shows that the bottom line is scientific advancement, at any cost to human life.

Current regulations provide clear guidelines for federally funded embryo and fetal-tissue research. Since 1975, protections for “human subjects,” a term that includes human life from the earliest stages in the womb and on, prohibit harmful experimentation on the unborn, regardless of a mother’s eventual decision to abort the child. When the NIH-convened Human Embryo Research Panel suggested to the Clinton administration in 1994 that certain kinds of harmful, nontherapeutic experiments on human embryos should receive federal funding, even President Clinton rejected many of their recommendations. Congress reacted even more strongly, adding riders to Department of Labor and Health and Human Services appropriations bills that prohibit funding experiments that involve “the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes” or “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death” not already permitted for fetuses.

The core of the HHS’s legal sleight-of-hand lies in their narrow interpretation of the phrase “research in which human embryos are destroyed.” Given the fact that stem cells are not embryos as defined by law and that they do not, in their words, “have the capacity to develop into a human being,” the NIH argue that federally funded experimentation on these types of stem cells is permissible, so long as grants are not awarded for the actual harvesting of stem cells from embryos. (Never mind the legally troubling and scientifically tenuous idea that embryos are not already considered human but merely have “the capacity to develop into a human being.”) The argument is that, providing the researcher punches out on his time card and does the killing on his own time, the federal government will not prohibit his actions. However, a reasonable interpretation of the law—and one that is doubtless consistent with Congress’s intent—is that “research in which” should be taken to mean “research that cannot be done without destroying embryos.”

Even the current, lax restrictions on fetal tissue research pose problems for experimentation on stem cells culled from embryos. According to federal regulations, the decision, timing, or procedures for an abortion cannot be altered by a researcher’s desire to use the human remains. In the case of stem cells, the very act of deriving stem cells from a living embryo is what kills the embryo—and its timing and method are geared precisely to the harvesting of usable cells for research.

The tragedy of the NIH’s relentless drive to pursue these avenues of scientific inquiry is that other methods of deriving stem cells—ethical and very promising methods that do not require the destruction of human embryos or the use of tissue from aborted fetuses—are not getting the attention they deserve. Testifying before the Senate subcommittee in January on behalf of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Richard Doerflinger outlined several promising alternatives to the ethically problematic methods the NIH wish to fund. Doerflinger, an associate director at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the NCCB, reported that “there are other promising sources of pluripotent (not embryonic) stem cells for treatment of disease,” not to mention many treatments that do not require stem cells but could produce similar results. Some of these sources include:

  • Blood-cell-producing stem cells—from bone marrow or even from the umbilical cord blood in live births, which is already widely used in the treatment of cancer, leukemia, and other blood diseases. Additionally, these cells were also recently found to be more versatile than once thought, showing the potential to be used to regenerate muscle tissue in muscular dystrophy treatment.
  • Fetal bone marrow—sufficient quantities of which can be harvested and stored from miscarriages rather than induced abortions.
  • Growth factors—chemicals that can assist in tissue regeneration when injected into the body.
  • Telomerase—dubbed “the immortality enzyme,” which has shown the potential to reduce or halt growth of tumors and to help rejuvenate and regenerate damaged tissues and organs.

Simply put, the notion that embryonic stem cells are essential to advancing scientific knowledge and medical treatments is false. So why are the NIH—joined by members of Congress like Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Thomas Harkin (D-Ia.)—pushing questionable avenues of research, even to the exclusion of more promising avenues that are not weighed down by similar ethical baggage?

“I think there is an ideological focus at work here,” says Doerflinger. In fact, the records of many of the architects of the legal justification of the research suggest that pro-abortion politics lurk behind the NIH’s creative interpretation of the law. When it was first considering the research, the NIH asked the HHS’s Office of General Counsel (OGC) to provide the legal rationalization for going ahead with the funding, and the OGC cheerfully complied. The OGC can hardly be described as an “ideology-free zone.” The legal experts behind the opinion include Marcy Wilder, the deputy general counsel of regulations and the former legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL). In July 1996, Wilder testified on behalf of NARAL at a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee hearing on mifepristone, more commonly known as RU-486, the abortion pill. In that hearing, she opined:

Mifepristone is one of many examples of how anti-choice forces have intruded into the practice of science and medicine. For more than a decade, abortion opponents have blocked promising research in contraceptive technology, infertility treatments, human embryo research, and fetal tissue research.

It stretches the imagination to believe that a former NARAL advocate making statements like these could be part of a team that is “very sensitive to the difficult ethical and legal concerns” surrounding research on stem cells harvested from the killing of the unborn. But neither HHS nor NIH have in recent times shown themselves to be sensitive to any ethical or moral concerns—save ones that can be brushed aside in the name of unbridled scientific “progress.” Varmus has himself gone on the record as saying, “ethical concerns cut both ways, and ethically we have to be concerned with the health of human beings.”

The difficulty with this outlook on bioethics, proposed by Varmus, the NIH, and groups like the 1994 Embryo Research Panel is that the whole process is tainted by reckless utilitarianism when medical benefit is factored into the ethical equation. Under such a framework, the bottom line of ethical questioning becomes the numbers: Can we save more people than we harm or kill to get the treatment? This line of thinking necessitates that values be assigned to human life in its varying stages, that classes of humanity be prioritized for their worth to society. However, where the concept of personhood is not absolute, the legal and moral status of any given class is up for grabs. Needless to say, this notion does not square with the now quaint ideas that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” life being foremost among those rights.

One can only hope that Congress will act swiftly to clarify its original intentions in crafting the current embryo research bans. Several courses of action lie open for members of the Senate and the House. Even now, 70 House members and seven Senators are composing a letter to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala requesting that he reverse the NIH’s decision. If nothing comes of that action, two other options remain open. The congressional leadership could force the issue of the NIH’s narrow interpretation of the law in the courts, or they could pass additional legislation that would specifically prohibit the federal funding of research on stem cells obtained by destroying embryos.

Unfortunately, opposition to those courses of action may rise up in Congress itself. Senators Specter and Harkin sit on the key Senate appropriations subcommittee for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services and are chairman and ranking minority leader, respectively. Both of them have shown an alarming level of support for embryo and fetal-tissue research. Even more alarming are Specter’s connections to the biotech industry, which has a vested interest in seeing restrictions on embryo and fetal tissue research lifted. Carl Feldbaum, the current president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), served as Specter’s chief of staff before joining BIO.

The web of special interests and ideological partisans is tight-knit, but committed, pro-life congressmen such as Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) have shifted their weight behind Americans who do not wish to see their taxes spent on the destruction of human life. Smith calls the NIH’s decision “the latest step by the Clinton administration to treat human beings as property to be manipulated and destroyed.”

Beyond the compelling moral arguments for a broad ban on embryonic stem cell research, Congress must consider the consciences of all of its constituents—not just those of special interests or even of the majority. As Doerflinger pointed out at the Senate subcommittee hearings:

[L]egislators are not merely making an economic decision to allocate limited funds. On behalf of all citizens who pay taxes, they are making a moral decision. They are declaring that certain kinds of research are sufficiently valuable and ethically upright to be conducted in the name of all Americans—and that other kinds are not.

At the very least, a decision to block the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research would ensure that no American need sacrifice his conscience to render unto Caesar. By encouraging science to focus on ethically sound—and promising—avenues of research, Congress can take a leading role in keeping the pursuit of knowledge from trampling on our nation’s most fundamental principles, and seeing that the wheels of progress may continue to turn, but not spin out of control.

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