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GOOD INTENTIONS?

The plan, described in an online fundraising appeal, was simple: “Drive bus from Santo Domingo into Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and gather 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages, then return to the DR.” A group of ten American missionaries collected thirty-three children (some of whom had living parents) after the January earthquake in Haiti, but they were stopped as they attempted to return to the Dominican Republic, where they planned to establish an orphanage.

Because the missionaries had neglected to get official permission to transport the children out of the country, Hatian authorities charged them with child abduction and jailed them. The prisoners’ families released a statement asking for leniency: “We are pleading to the Haitian prime minister to focus his energies on the critical tasks ahead for the country and to forgive mistakes that were made by a group of Americans trying to assist Haiti’s children.”

The Americans’ intentions may have been pure. Human trafficking, however, is a grievous problem in Haiti, and protecting children from exploitation was a “critical task” for the government even before the earthquake plunged the country into chaos. There have been calls for Haiti to lift restrictions on international adoptions in light of the greater number of children now in need. On the New York Times Web site, journalist E. J. Graff noted the risks involved. “If you were a child trafficker or adoption profiteer,” she asked, “wouldn’t you pretend to be a humanitarian worker trying to save orphans?”

The outpouring of compassion in the wake of the disaster has been impressive, and it is frustrating when bureaucracy interferes with efforts to help needy children. But providing for children’s welfare is not as simple as loading “orphans” into a bus and hoping for the best. Safeguards against human trafficking must be strengthened and enforced, in Haiti and around the world. For now, the best way for nonprofessionals to help Haitian orphans and families is to support the agencies that already serve them and will go on working to protect the poor when the television cameras have left.

 

KEEP TRYING

In 2007, scientists discovered a way to trick adult stem cells into behaving like their embryonic counterparts. Critics of embryo-destructive research—including the editors of this magazine—took heart. If induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), as they are called, could do the work of cells derived from embryos (hES), there would be less incentive for scientists to farm nascent human life in search of medicine’s holy grail: the cell that can grow into any human tissue. Ethical problem solved—or at least dodged.

That hope was tempered earlier this month when the results of a long-term study raised doubts about the theorized parity between iPS and hES cells. The research, sponsored by two biotech firms in collaboration with Harvard and the University of Illinois, found that iPS cells aged earlier, suffered more molecular abnormalities, and reproduced more slowly than embryonic cells. Were such cells to be used in treatment, “you would have no way of telling whether the problems you were seeing were due to the disease or to these properties of iPS cells,” according to Dr. Robert Lanza, chief science officer of Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT) and one of the study’s authors.

With a near-celebratory tone, ACT fired off a press release suggesting the superiority of embryonic stem cells: “The findings support the use of ACT’s single blastomere-derived human embryonic stem-cell lines which do not display early aging.” Not quite. Buried deeper in the news release is an important caveat: the researchers suspect the problem with the iPS cells may be the method used to rewire them. “Fortunately,” Lanza explains, “we think the problem may be related to the use of viruses. Preliminary results suggest that these abnormalities are significantly reduced using [adult] stem cells generated using proteins [rather than viruses].” In other words, pace ACT’s PR staff, reports of the death of adult stem-cell research have been somewhat exaggerated. What can be concluded from this study is that more study is needed. In the meantime, the ethical problem with embryo-destructive research remains. As we wrote in “The Stem-cell Sell” (August 17, 2001): “As a matter of public policy, we would not sacrifice the life and/or dignity of one human, no matter its state of being or state of development, for the benefit of another.” That is precisely where the instrumentalist logic of embryo-destroying stem-cell research still leads.

Published in the 2010-02-26 issue: 
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