Stem Cell Foes Answering The Wrong Question

31 August 2001

By Stentor Danielson

President Bush agonized for months over whether to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He listened to experts from the world of science and medicine, who praised the advances in the treatment of diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's that could be made through stem cell research. He listened to experts from the field of religion and ethics, who warned him of the moral complications of destroying embryos for research. Even the Pope got a say as Bush mulled over the issue and gave no hint as to what side he would eventually come down on.

On August 9, in his first national TV address as President, Bush gave his verdict. Federal funding for stem cell research would be allowed, he said, but only if the stem cells being used came from the 60-odd cell lines created before the announcement. No federal funds will go to the creation of new cell lines. Bush has made it clear that he will veto any legislation attempting to broaden his decision to allow more research. The compromise decision was better than I had feared, given Bush's strong anti-abortion commitments. But the nation would have been better served by allowing funding for the creation of new cell lines.

Bush presented the existing cell lines as being more than adequate to serve the needs of science. Nonetheless, there are a number of complications that restrict their usefulness. Because many of the lines are held by private companies, there are uncertainties about how robust those lines will be, and whether or not researchers will have access to them.

Nearly all existing stem cell lines were grown by grafting them to mouse cells. This means that use of these cells in human tests would fall under restrictive FDA guidelines covering the use of animal tissues in human research. Researchers had hoped to find a mouse-free method of growing stem cell lines by the time they were prepared to begin human tests, but Bush's decision cuts off that hope.

For effective research ultimately leading to treatments for deadly diseases, we need more stem cell lines. But the creation of these lines runs afoul of moral arguments that seem to miss the question actually asked of Bush. The argument against stem cell research is generally made by drawing stem cell research into the realm of abortion politics. Destroying an embryo for research is equated to destroying an embryo in the process of abortion.

Nonetheless, stem cell research has nothing to do with abortion. The question in the abortion debate is, do we destroy an embryo or not? The moral complications enter because, if the embryo qualifies as a person, destroying it qualifies as murder and should therefore be prevented if possible.

But in stem cell research, that decision has already been made. Stem cells are taken from spare embryos created during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments. IVF requires the production of more embryos than the parents will ever use. These embryos are ultimately discarded. So the choice to destroy or not to destroy has already been made. The only question that remains is whether or not to waste the embryos' stem cells. I fail to see how placing stem cells in a petri dish is morally reprehensible, but placing them in a medical waste disposal container is acceptable. I also fail to see how benefiting from destruction that happened before August 9 is any different from benefiting from destruction that happens after that date. Bush's distinction makes sense only if blocking funding would prevent further destruction of embryos, which is clearly not the case.

The argument can be made that, by allowing society to profit from discarded IVF embryos, we would be encouraging the production and destruction of more embryos than would otherwise be made. For example, upon learning of a grandparent's diagnosis with Alzheimer's, the argument goes, a concerned couple might sign up for IVF in order to provide grandpa's doctors with more stem cells so that he could be treated. This issue was addressed by the set of guidelines prepared by the Clinton administration, the consideration of which launched Bush's extended period of research. These regulations proposed safeguards, such as an extended waiting period between the creation of the embryo and its destruction, to ensure that the embryos were created for IVF, not research.

The consistent position on the destruction of embryos (though it has been far from prominent in this debate) would be to oppose the destruction of all embryos, no matter what their ultimate fate. In other words, any embryo created must be implanted in a mother, born and raised to adulthood. If destroying embryos for science is wrong, then destroying embryos because they aren't needed is equally wrong (probably more so, as there is no benefit to mitigate the crime).

Since it is doubtful that many infertile parents are prepared to raise a large batch of children to prevent their spare embryos from being discarded, it would be logical to simply ban IVF. This would solve the stem cell problem by eliminating the supply of stem cells. There are, of course, people out there who do oppose IVF regardless of what is done with the embryos. However, in considering a ban of IVF, we once again leave the issue of stem cells.

Bush's decision was not about IVF. It is a basic fact of the matter that IVF is legal, and no decision on stem cell research will change that. It is worthwhile to ask, should IVF continue? However, given that IVF is occurring, and stem cells are being created and discarded, we must ask, should we use those stem cells or allow them to go to waste?

If stem cell research is morally wrong because it involves the destruction of embryos, then IVF is equally repugnant. But blocking stem cell research will do nothing to address this problem. The only way to prevent the destruction of the embryos is to ban IVF. But as long as IVF remains legal, it would be morally repugnant to waste the resource that embryonic stem cells represent.

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