The Stem-cell Sell

"Ladies and Gentlemen: Today Only: The Elixir of Life! We have in these nearly invisible, no-bigger-than-the-period-at-the-end-of-this-sentence embryos the secret to long life and perfect health. These tiny cells—they call ’em blastocysts back in the lab—will cure the aches and pains, the ills of humankind. Neurologically degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, gone like smallpox! Autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, cured on diagnosis! The end of cancer! The end of diabetes as we know it! And, Ladies and Gentlemen, these cells, as miniscule as they appear today, will someday provide replacement parts for every nook and cranny of the human body, from hearts to hamstrings.

"You ask how anything so small could provide us with the gift of virtual immortality? Ladies and Gentlemen, give us your dollars and we will give you the answer."

Instructive, isn’t it, how much scientists clamoring for federal funds sound like that quintessential American huckster, the snake-oil salesman?

We have heard this spiel before. In 1992, Congress held hearings on transplanting fetal brain cells, much like the hearings we saw in mid-July on embryonic stem cells. Suffering humanity, especially children, are exhibited to move the hearts of congressmen who wouldn’t dare say "no" to Little Nell. Back in ’92, proponents argued that fetal brain cells were the cure for Parkinson’s and for most of the diseases and disabilities that today they say stem cells will remedy. In fact, transplanted fetal brain cells have turned out to be, well—snake oil. Congress approved, and fetal brain cells were duly injected into the brains of Parkinson’s sufferers. The treatment did not work. More serious, it made the conditions of some 15 percent of patients far worse, and their standard medications less effective than they had been before the implantation.

This is not proof that fetal cells, stems cells, or cloned cells won’t eventually do much that scientists have promised. But, as yet, there is meager evidence that they will. At the same time, tentative research results suggest that adult stem cells may offer respite from certain cancers, some injuries, and some chronic illnesses while avoiding the potential biological problems expected with embryo stem cells, namely tumors and transplant rejection.

President George W. Bush is being asked to approve National Institute of Health guidelines that would permit federal funding of research on embryonic stem cells. These forty cell-embryos are the product of in vitro fertilization procedures in which sperm and egg are joined in a "test tube." Some of these embryos will be implanted in a woman’s uterus, while others are frozen and stored. When couples no longer need or want them, the embryos are usually discarded. It is the stem cells from these discarded embryos that researchers are eager to get into their petri dishes for experimentation supported by federal funds. In fact, such research has been going on in private labs without benefit of federal funds, and so far without much progress. To date, researchers are said to have developed approximately six stem-cell lines, that is, they have replicated an original stem cell in six instances. It is these stem-cell lines that would be used for research if Bush approves the NIH guidelines.

That the embryos are nascent human life, which must be destroyed in order to extract the stem cells, is, of course, a controversial matter, raising all the arguments and passions that surround the abortion issue. A human life has begun. But other profound questions are at stake; and the abortion cudgel tends to obscure them.

It is true these embryos are not human persons (which is why some prolife senators and congressmen have come out in favor of federal funding for stem-cell research). But they are human life—after all, those few that survive the arduous implantation and gestation process would become human beings, not frogs. It is the fact of their humanness not their stage of development that should raise the most profound skepticism about the ultimate goal of embryo stem-cell research. Today we are promised cures from debilitating or fatal diseases; tomorrow replacement organs; and the day after custom-designed progeny. By then we will be well on the road to the brave new world of control and standardization of human reproduction. This is a process of selection that can only destroy the fragile hold we humans have on a sense of our own dignity and singularity.

Proponents of stem-cell research argue that since these embryos will be discarded anyway, we should used them for the benefit of the living who are suffering now. On the contrary, embryos should not be used in this way for the same reason that we would not cannibalize the heart, kidney, liver, or corneas of a unconscious person for transplantation purposes. In other words, 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.

If we do not draw a line now respecting human life in these embryos, the pressures on the president and Congress from researchers, investors, and the representatives of the ill and dying guarantee that no line will be drawn at all. Before adjourning, the House tried to draw one significant line by banning human cloning, but the Senate is unlikely to follow its lead when they return in September. In the meantime, the president should say no to the NIH guidelines, and instead work with Congress to appropriate a modest level of federal funding to support research on adult stem cells. This research has shown real potential and is being carried out now without raising the moral, legal, and biological problems of embryonic stem cells.

Published in the 2001-08-17 issue: 
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