Health and Medical
"Faust (foust), noun: A man
in an old legend who sold his soul to the devil in return for knowledge
A true faustian bargain
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:
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:
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.