Responsible Science and Stem Cell Research

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/01/2009

Ethical Stem Cell Research: A Mass of Misconceptions

On March 9, 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order entitled “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells.”1 The president’s order explicitly revoked President Bush’s Executive Order 13435 that, among other things, clarified certain limits on federal funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells.

President Obama signed the order to “lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research [ESCR],” because science itself was at stake. “We make scientific decisions based on facts and not ideology,” he said that morning.2

He assured his listeners, however, that “appropriate safeguards” would be in place. “We will support [this research] only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted.” Further, “We will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.” “This practice,” he said, is “dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.”

For a president who candidly admitted that questions about the beginning of human life were “above my pay grade,” this was a stunning development. Worse, both the language of this Executive Order and the President’s own explanation and defense of it are deeply misleading.

Misconception #1

President Obama’s Executive Order did not “lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research,” for one simple reason. There has never been a “ban” on federal funding for ESCR. In fact, there have been no bans of any kind on any stem cell research of any sort.

Quite the opposite is true. George W. Bush was the first president to provide federal funds (more than $200 million) for stem cell research, including existing lines of embryonic stem cells that came from embryos long since sacrificed using private funds. Federal funds would also be available for any new ESCR projects as long as the cells were “derived without creating a human embryo for research purposes or destroying, discarding, or subjecting to harm a human embryo or fetus.”3

There were restrictions on federal funding, but no ban. Federal funds for education are also restricted according to Title IX guidelines, but it would hardly be fair to call this a “ban on educational funding.”

Executive Order 13435 justified the funding restrictions by actually detailing a moral argument—characterized by President Obama as “ideology” interfering with science:

(c) the destruction of nascent life for research violates the principle that no life should be used as a mere means for achieving the medical benefit of another;

(d) human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species, are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and sold; and

(e) the Federal Government has a duty to exercise responsible stewardship of taxpayer funds, both supporting important medical research and respecting ethical and moral boundaries.

Obama’s order and statement contained no such argument. There was no attempt to wrestle with the weighty moral issues, or to balance policy with the ethical concerns of thoughtful critics. Their moral apprehensions were simply brushed away by presidential fiat.

Misconception #2

For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the President’s ESCR Executive Order (EO), it actually changed nothing at all, at least for the moment. It made for dramatic political theater, but it did nothing to alter the federal status of funding for ESCR.

The real obstacle to unrestricted funding was not Executive Order 13435, but rather an act of Congress—an appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) containing the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. The amendment says, in part, “none of the funds made available in this Act may be used for—(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or (2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.”4

The claim of Obama’s EO that “human embryonic stem cell research has been limited by Presidential actions” was a pure fiction, one that has been circulating for a long time. Bush’s own EO—rescinded by President Obama in March—had introduced no new restrictions. It merely supplied a morally nuanced articulation of current law and directed that federal funds be spent on stem cell research that did not sacrifice human lives in its effort.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment has been a part of the DHHS omnibus bill since 1996. It passed both houses of Congress and was signed first by Bill Clinton, then by George Bush. Ironically, Barack Obama himself signed it just two days after he inked his controversial EO on ESCR.

So why did President Obama issue an EO that his own signature immediately nullified two days later? Whatever might be inferred from this action, one thing is clear: The bottleneck on ESCR was not caused by the prior administration. It was in place long before with bipartisan consent of both houses of Congress and signed by presidents of both parties.

Perhaps the president wasn’t aware of the amendment. This strikes me as surprising since it had been a fixed—and controversial—feature of the bill for 13 years. The very next day the New York Times weighed in on Dickey-Wicker calling for its repeal, and there is a movement in his own party—headed by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO)—to do just that. Was the president completely in the dark about something lesser figures were fully apprised of and that was central to the viability of his own EO?

Perhaps the president knew, but thought the amendment only a temporary obstacle that would expire in September along with the current fiscal year. Why, then, no reference to it? Why not rally the faithful against the one remaining obstacle to the advance of science? Why give the impression that the only relevant obstacle—Bush’s EO 13435—had been eliminated?

There might have been other reasons. One can only speculate.

Misconception #3

In spite of assurances to the contrary, the president’s new Executive Order does nothing to limit reproductive cloning. President Obama’s comments trade on a long-standing confusion—the alleged distinction between “therapeutic” cloning and “reproductive” cloning.

Therapeutic cloning is the kind of cloning used by scientists to produce embryonic material for research. Reproductive cloning is the kind of cloning done to eventually produce a baby. It is the second kind that the president called “dangerous” and “profoundly wrong,” a practice that “has no place in our society, or any society.”

Here is the relevant question: How does cloning to produce cells for research differ from cloning to produce a new human being? The answer is: There is no difference at all.

Human embryonic stem cell research requires human embryonic stem cells. There is only one source of such cells. They must all come initially from human embryos,5 and there are only two possible sources of human embryos for this task.

First, there are tens of thousands of embryos allegedly destined for the trash can—the frozen remnants of over-ambitious IVF attempts. Though ESCR admittedly destroys these living human beings, to many this is okay because “the embryos are going to die anyway.”

Beside the obvious moral inadequacy of this reasoning (it would justify lethal medical experiments on death row inmates or ill-fated Jews in concentration camps, for example), there is another more pressing practical problem. The vast majority of these embryos are not destined for destruction. They are the private property of parents who intend to implant them in the future or, if not, still do not want their diminutive offspring donated for medical experiments.

There is a second source of human embryos, however. Scientists can create their own embryos from scratch. First, remove genetic material from a cell taken from the person who needs therapy and place it into the nucleus of an egg whose own genetic material has been evacuated. Then jump start it with an electrical charge and embryonic stem cells begin to form. These cells have the same genetic makeup of the donor, avoiding potential rejection problems when used in therapy.

The technical term for this procedure is “somatic cell nuclear transfer.” It also goes by a more common name: human cloning. Cloning is nothing more than asexual reproduction. Though a different biological process is involved, it is the same kind of human duplication that happens whenever identical twins are conceived.

Regardless of the manipulations of technology used to create human embryos for research (IVF or cloning), each reproduces a full, genuine human being in the earliest stages of her development—a self-contained, self-integrated living entity with her own nature. She has the innate capacity to proceed through the full series of human developmental stages, if she is allowed to survive. All she needs is proper nurture and environment, the same as you and me.

Her cells are not yet individuated (they haven’t developed unique vocations as bone cells, skin cells, etc.). Yet she is still an individual self (though not yet self-aware) and will remain herself for her entire life until death. She will never become a human; she already is one.

Here is the critical point. Since all cloning reproduces a human being, all cloning is reproductive cloning. A full human being is reproduced in both instances. The difference in language (“therapeutic” vs. “reproductive”) signifies nothing about the cloning itself, but rather about the fate of the unfortunate human being it produces. Current policy allows human cloning as long as the little human created is killed for research instead of being allowed to survive and mature.

Agreed, therapeutic cloning will never make a baby, but only because it’s very difficult to grow that large in a Petri dish. Seal up a senator in a Mason jar and he won’t grow much, either. President Obama assures us that no human beings produced through cloning will survive. They will be sacrificed for research, instead.

Ironically, therapeutic cloning, not reproductive cloning, is the procedure that is “profoundly wrong,” a practice that “has no place in our society, or any society.” Yet this is the cloning approved of by the scientific establishment and current law, a serious moral harm that is made attractive through verbal sleight of hand.

Misconception #4

Here is the final false impression. The president promised that ESCR would be done “only when it is...scientifically worthy.” The fact is, embryonic stem cell research is not medically justified and therefore not scientifically worthy, considering the ethical risks.

A distinction rarely made publicly in this debate is the one between two kinds of stem cells being used for research: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. The former require the destruction of human embryos. The latter come from a variety of sources, none of which are lethal or harmful to the donor. Research conducted on both types of cells for a long time has produced stunning results in both cases.

Adult stem cell research has been magnificently successful. I know of 73 treatments currently in use from efforts using adult stem cells, and my list is over two years old. 6 Therapies exist for brain cancer, ovarian cancer, testicular cancer, leukemia, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, sickle cell anemia, stroke, limb gangrene, heart damage, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury, and a host of others.

These are not speculations or eager hopes, but modalities already saving lives. I have personally spoken with people who are alive today because of clinical success with adult stem cell therapies.

And the success continues. Over the past two years, scientists discovered they could reprogram ordinary skin cells to perform like embryonic stem cells. Further, the process, called induced pluripotent stem-cell technology, produces stem cells that are patient specific, eliminating the problem of immune rejection. It also avoids the ominous moral and political hurdles—human cloning and embryo destruction—facing ESCR. And the process is cheaper than research on embryonic cells, prompting hundreds of labs to opt for the new technology over ESC experimentation.7

Ironically, news of major breakthroughs in this field surfaced just one week before the president signed his new Executive Order.8 The report prompted this remark from Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Stem cell research that requires destroying embryos is going the way of the Model T. No administration that values science and medical progress over politics will want to divert funds now toward that increasingly obsolete and needlessly divisive approach.”9 On Monday, March 9, however, the president was silent regarding this new and promising alternative.

The results for ESCR are equally stunning, but for the opposite reason. How many therapies have been developed for human application through embryonic stem cell research to date? Not a single one. So far it has been all hype, no results. The future benefits of this research are purely speculative and there are good reasons to doubt they will ever be realized, not the least of which is the tendency of embryonic stem cells to cause dangerous proliferation of tumors.

Unlike the reports on adult stem research, which has already produced an abundance of effective therapies, the claims being made about ESCR’s potential have been outlandish and completely unverified. Proponents have wildly exaggerated the possibilities of medical progress, and have wildly exaggerated the chances the possibilities will actually be realized.

Destruction of human embryos for research has not shown itself to be “scientifically worthy.” So far, that description applies only to adult stem cell research.

Only One Question

I have argued elsewhere10 that only one question needs to be answered to resolve what many think is a complex moral problem. That question is, “What is it?” Both abortion and ESCR kill something that is alive. In fact, both destroy the same thing at different stages of development. Whether it’s right or not to take that life depends entirely on what it is we’re killing.

Let me put it as clearly as I know how. If the zygote or embryo or fetus is not a human being, then no justification for ESCR is necessary. Experiment as you please. However, if the unborn is a human being, no justification for taking her life is adequate, because we do not justify harming other human beings for the reasons people routinely give for ESCR. We don’t carve up innocent human beings in hope that it might benefit someone else who is sick, even if “they’re going to die anyway.”

It is incomprehensible to me how a stunning number of pro-lifers could rally in support of ESCR for the very same reasons pro-choicers classically have justified abortion: It doesn’t look human; it’s in the wrong location (a Petri dish, not a uterus); it’s too small to be of moral consequence; it’s alive, but not a life; it’s human, but not a human being; it’s a human being, but not a person; others will gain tremendous benefit. When pro-lifers embrace pro-choice logic, they undermine their entire moral enterprise.

Only One Answer

Though the water has been muddied by a parade of medical experts, Nobel laureates, movie stars, victims of disease, and extravagant claims of miraculous cures, giving a green light to federally funded ESCR is, as one person put it, “bad ethics and bad science.”11

It implicitly authorizes human cloning to provide the massive number of embryos needed for research, though its claims of medical benefit are exaggerated and its expectations of future benefit are unjustified.

Embryonic stem cell research destroys valuable human beings in the earliest moments of their lives. Most embryos are harvested at seven days, just 14 days away from a beating heart. They are full human beings who need only nurture, care, and the proper environment to grow to maturity, yet their bodies are being sacrificed for medical progress. Simply put, this is wrong.

The threat of the “brave new world” is not science. It is science unrestrained by “ideology.” The difference between science based solely on facts, and those constrained by ideology is the difference between Joseph Mengele and Jonas Salk.

When any embryo is destroyed for the sake of science, a valuable human being has been sacrificed. For those who acknowledge what all embryologists know, that human life begins at conception, there is only one answer to the question of destroying human embryos for research: No.