Health and Medical

  "Faust (foust), noun: A man in an old legend who sold his soul to the devil in return for knowledge and power."
— Webster's New World Dictionary, 1966


Stem-Cell Senators

A true faustian bargain

By Wesley J. Smith
National Review Guest Editorial
June 27, 2001

In the debate over whether the federal government should fund embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR), our country is being offered a true Faustian bargain. In return for a hoped-for potential — it is no more than that — of deriving desperately desired medical breakthroughs in the treatment of such afflictions as Parkinson's disease, paraplegia, and diabetes, we are being asked to give the nation's imprimatur to reducing human life into a mere natural resource to be exploited and commodified.

Given the stakes, our lawmakers owe it to their country to take the time to thoroughly understand the issue before speaking in public and taking sides. Unfortunately, Senators Orrin Hatch's and Trent Lott's recent statements in favor of embryonic research exhibited stunning ignorance regarding the subject about which they opined. Making matters worse, the press quickly leaped upon the statements of these pro-life senators as proof that embryonic research is moral, ethical, and scientifically justified, when the reverse is actually true.

Senator Hatch's attempt to explain his pro ESCR funding position to Chris Matthews on Hardball on June 20, demonstrated that he doesn't know an embryo from a stem cell. Take the following statements:

  • "After a long period of study and prayer, I found that pluripotent cells are not full human beings but can be very, very beneficial as used by science to help with all kinds of maladies…."
  • "It is appropriate to use pluripotent cells but inappropriate to use totipotent cells because a pluripotent cell cannot be made into a full human being. A totipotent cell can actually be replicated into a human being through even cloning." (Totipotent cells are the first to appear after fertilization and can actually develop into a completely new embryo — as occurs during identical twinning. Pluripotent [stem] cells appear a bit later. They are "undifferentiated cells" that can develop into any body part — which is why researchers wish to study them.)
  • "Life begins in the mother's womb, not in a refrigerator."

In stating that the feds should fund the study of pluripotent cells but not totipotent cells, Senator Hatch confused several essential points. First, pluripotent cells and totipotent cells are not the same thing as the embryo itself. Rather, these cells are constituent parts of the embryonic whole just as vital organs are parts of born persons. Second, while the pluripotent cell itself may not have the potential to develop into a full human being, the embryo from which it is extracted does have that potential if implanted in a woman's womb. Third, taking the pluripotent cell destroys the embryo just as taking the heart would kill a born human being. This is what makes embryonic stem-cell research morally objectionable. Fourth, Senator Hatch's statement that life does not begin in a refrigerator but in a mother's womb is bizarre. Wherever it happens, fertilization certainly produces a new member of the human species. Indeed, federal law explicitly prohibits federal funding of experiments that destroy embryos outside the womb precisely because individual human life begins at fertilization. (In order to open the door to federal funding of ESCR, President Clinton interpreted his way around this legal impediment to permit funding of stem-cell research only after the destruction of the embryos already has occurred.) Whatever one thinks of Hatch's premise, it is certainly not biology.

Senator Lott seemed to have had the same professor as Hatch on the June 24 Meet the Press. Host Tim Russert asked Lott what the president should do about federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. The Mississippi senator leaned toward supporting federal funding on the basis that there is potential for medical advances from experimenting with "cells before they become embryos."

No, Senator Lott, you have it backwards. Stem cells are not mere unorganized protoplasm that somehow develops in the future into the organic whole we call the embryo. Rather, stem cells are extracted from existing, living embryos that are generally a week old and already are made up of dozens or even hundreds of cells.

In the defense of the senators, these are very complex biological issues. But the reasons why the federal government should not fund embryonic stem-cell research are not all that complicated.

Non Embryonic Stem Cells Show Tremendous Potential

The National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), which recommended permitting federal funding of ESCR, also stated that using embryos in excess of need in IVF treatments "is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research." Happily, since the NBAC recommendation, research breakthroughs using adult stem cells and alternatives such as stem cells found in umbilical cord blood, have been breathtaking. Here is a just a partial list by the type of maladies that ESCR advocates hope to ameliorate, but for which, alternative sources of therapy already demonstrate awesome potential:

  • Diabetes: Three recent breakthroughs have occurred in the fight against diabetes. First, in procedures akin to an organ transplant, cadaver pancreatic islet cell transfers have helped people afflicted with Type 1 diabetes to the point where they don't have to take insulin. (They do, however, have to take anti-tissue rejection medication.) Second, in mouse experiments, adult pancreatic stem cells restored full insulin production in diabetic mice as a consequence of which the treated mice lived. Finally, when diabetic mice were treated with embryonic stem cells they produced approximately 2% of the insulin required for life. All of these mice died. Thus it appears likely that adult stem cells and alternative surgical therapies offer greater potential for relieving diabetes than do embryonic stem cell therapy.
  • Nerve Damage: Proponents of embryonic stem cells offer the hope that these cells might someday help heal damaged nerves, perhaps offering a cure for paraplegia or quadriplegia many years in the future. Yet, little noted by the media, white-blood-cell therapy has already produced astonishing results in an 18-year-old woman whose spinal cord was severed in an automobile accident. Amazingly, after having the cells implanted in her spinal cord, the woman regained control over her bladder and can now move her toes and legs, although not yet walk.
  • Immune System Defects: In Los Angeles, the transplantation of stem cells harvested from umbilical-cord blood has saved the lives of three young boys born with defective immune systems. Rather than receiving bone marrow transplants, the three boys underwent stem-cell therapy. The experimental procedure worked. Two years post-surgery, their doctors at UCLA Medical Center pronounced the boys cured.
  • Neurological Disease: Scientists have discovered that stem cells found in umbilical-cord blood can be reprogrammed to act as healthy brain cells. At the University of South Florida (Tampa), rats that had been genetically engineered to suffer strokes were injected with these cells. The cells integrated seamlessly into the surrounding brain tissue where they matured into the type of cell appropriate for that area of the brain. Meanwhile, scientists have learned that new neurons (brain cells) are produced in adults, overthrowing previous scientific dogma, and offering a potential source for stem cell harvesting. And, in another astonishing turn, it turns out that even cadaver brains can also supply brain stem cells. The ability to open, isolate and harness these cells — whether from umbilical cord blood or living or cadaver brains — offers great hope for future treatments of Parkinson's disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), multiple sclerosis, and other nerve/brain maladies without having to destroy embryos in the process.

ESCR May Not Work

Senators Hatch and Lott's assumed that ESCR had already demonstrated that it could eventually lead to miracle cures. Quite the contrary. While adult/alternative cell therapies are already treating cartilage defects in children, systemic lupus, and helping restore vision to patients who were legally blind — just to name a few — embryonic stem-cell research has no equivalent record of success even in animal studies. Indeed, embryonic/fetal cells have never ameliorated one human malady.

ESCR Could be a Gateway to Cloning

Promoters of federally funding ESCR promise that initial research would come from embryos currently stored in in-vitro-fertilization clinic storage tanks. These embryos, they point out, are likely to be destroyed anyway so why not use them for scientific benefit?

While this is a potent argument that appeals to the pragmatic streak in the American character, it is actually a bit of the old "bait and switch." Yes, initial research would use IVF embryos currently in excess of need for impregnating women. But should ESCR prove potentially beneficial in clinical use, some in the biotech community claim that IVF sources would be insufficient to meet clinical need. At that point, cloning would be required. Thus these companies vigorously oppose congressional attempts to outlaw human cloning in the United States. Indeed, according to recent Congressional Committee testimony by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, cloning of embryos "are a critical and necessary step in the production of sufficient quantities of vigorous replacement cells for the clinical treatment of patients."

Senators Hatch and Lott support the proposed ban on human cloning. Yet both seem completely unaware that their sympathy for the federal funding of ESCR, if successful, could lead to the very cloning procedures that both, to their credit, find abhorrent. Indeed, the Stem Cell Senators may find that their pragmatism-over-principle approach comes back to haunt them.

Embryonic stem-cell research takes us onto a path that would transform our perception of human life into a malleable, marketable natural resource — akin to a cattle herd or copper mine — to be exploited for the benefit of the born and breathing. Unlike Hatch and Lott, President Bush recognizes the danger, which was why he declared his opposition to federally funded ESCR during the campaign. He now faces fierce and intense pressure to reverse this stand — aided and abetted by the Stem Cell Senators. This is a profound test of his moral leadership. Let us hope that the president's knees do not buckle.

Wesley J. Smith is a consumer advocate and attorney. Smith is most recently the author of Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America, published by Encounter Books.