Stemming and Hawing

Why Opponents of Stem Cell Research Can’t Get Their Story Straight

It's time to stop worrying about appeasing opponents of stem cell research and start focusing on research into life-saving cures.

When President Bush vetoed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act on July 19 2006, he said, “researchers are investigating new techniques that might allow doctors and scientists to produce stem cells just as versatile as those derived from human embryos without harming life. We must continue to explore these hopeful alternatives.” One of these alternatives now appears to be a reality, as scientists have reported they could remove a single cell from an embryo to grow stem cells, apparently without hurting the embryo. Yet, instead of hailing this work, the White House’s first response was to say that “any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical concerns.” Later a presidential spokesman called for more review of the results by scientists and ethicists.

Other opponents of stem cell research were also negative about the new technique. Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB) and an architect of the Bush stem cell policy, stated: “I do not think that this is the sought-for, morally unproblematic and practically useful approach we need.” William Hurlbut, another member of the PCB, expressed concerns about the risk posed to embryos. Sen. Sam Brownback’s spokesman was even more hostile, stating erroneously that the procedure involves “creating a twin and then killing that twin.” Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was the most explicit, objecting to the research in principle because of the Catholic Church’s objection to in vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which uses the same single-cell removal technique. Clearly, these stem cell opponents are concerned with more than just embryo-destructive research.

The new stem cell procedure was outlined in an article in Nature by scientists at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT). They claim to have shown that it is possible to derive human embryonic-stem-cell-like cells from a single cell removed from a human embryo. The procedure is the same as that used for PGD, which is routinely used to screen embryos for certain genetic diseases before they are transferred into the woman’s uterus. Experience with PGD suggests that this procedure does not harm the embryo or any resulting child. Also, the removed cell does not appear to be able to develop into an embryo on its own, although it may be possible to combine the cell with other cells to produce another embryo.

There are certainly good reasons to temper enthusiasm for the ACT experiment, which has not shown the procedure to be practical or safe, as only two stem cell lines were developed from 91 individual cells. Additional time and resources will be needed to address technical concerns and increase the procedure’s efficiency. Also, there is insufficient data on the effects of the procedure on the developing fetus or child; while this procedure has been used for PGD, there has been little study of the long-term effects. The authors of the study themselves caution that “until remaining doubts about safety are resolved, we do not recommend this procedure be applied outside the context of PGD.” There is also concern that these stem cell-like cells will not allow scientists to study the development of diseases, considered to be one of the most promising areas of embryonic stem cell research.

Despite these drawbacks, one might have expected opponents of embryonic stem cell research to applaud this advance. After all, the scientific community has sought to accommodate concerns about “embryo destructive research,” despite overwhelming support for the research among the American people and both major political parties. Yet the response from some opponents of the research has been tepid at best. Doerflinger has even accused the ACT scientists of deceit for not making clear that this particular experiment did not involve the removal of a single cell from a few embryos but of multiple cells, thus destroying the embryo. Yet the fact that stem cells can be “grown out” from single cells does appear to have been demonstrated.

The problem is that these opponents do not simply object to stem cell research, but to assisted reproductive technology in general. The scientists from ACT, expecting to be lauded for finding a way out of the “embryo destruction” criticism, seem themselves not to have fully appreciated the nature of the opposition. Kass was an opponent of IVF fertility treatment when it was first proposed, and while he now accepts its legality, he still cautions about the potential dangers of its widespread use. Doerflinger frankly opposes IVF, claiming that the procedure makes the embryo “more a product of manufacture than a gift.” President Bush’s cautions against embryo research express the same concern. But opposition to IVF is even more politically unpopular than opposition to stem cell research.

This is not the first time that opponents of embryonic stem cell research have been obliged to shift the focus of their argument. Some claimed embryonic stem cell research holds little promise, a claim that was disproved when embryonic stem cells were used to cure paralysis in rats. Then they exaggerated the promise of adult stem cell research, culminating in Karl Rove’s claim that adult stem cells were more promising than embryonic stem cells – an assertion he could not find a single scientist to substantiate. Finally, many opponents of expanding research funding – particularly those in the Bush administration – claimed that alternative methods of deriving embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos would make it unnecessary to use leftover embryos in fertility clinics. But now, in the face of the possible development of such a technique, the White House has backtracked once again.

The reaction to the recent development of an alternative method for deriving stem cells suggests that attempts to respond to stem cell opponents’ demands may be futile. The scientific community has tried to appease them, but their efforts have been met with resistance. Unwilling to admit their politically untenable position against any experimentation with embryos or use of IVF, even to help infertile couples, opponents of the research have responded to the ACT paper by expressing further doubts. This episode demonstrates that for many of the opponents of stem cell research, there can be no satisfactory technical “fix” short of turning adult stem cells into embryonic cells, which the NIH stem cell expert has called “pie in the sky.” Perhaps it is time to stop worrying about appeasing opponents of embryonic stem cell research and start focusing on fully supporting research into life-saving cures.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is Emily Davie and Joseph S. Kornfeld Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the Progressive Bioethics Initiative.

Sam Berger is a Research Assistant at the Center for American Progress.

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Jonathan D. Moreno

Senior Fellow

Sam Berger

Former Vice President, Democracy and Government Reform