Science and Ethics at Crucial Crossroads

American science and bioethics stand at a crucial crossroads. The U.S. Senate will vote next week on three science-related bills with far-reaching implications for basic research, medicine and mankind.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 (H.R. 810) sanctions federal funding of research involving embryonic stem cells “harvested” from embryos stored in in-vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. The Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act of 2006 (S. 2754) promotes research aimed at producing ethical sources of embryonic stem cells. The Fetus Farming Prohibition Act of 2006 (S. 3504) prohibits the solicitation or acceptance of tissue from fetuses gestated for research purposes.

The fate of these bills will determine whether American publicly funded research continues its headlong slide down a moral slippery slope, whether it topples into a murky abyss, or whether a light emerges from darkness.

The Castle-DeGette bill (H.R. 810) sells hype in the name of hope.

This bill’s supporters claim that basic research using embryonic stem cells from IVF embryos will point to cures for disability and disease, or the cells might be used in medical treatments. Not so. Cells taken from these embryos will genetically match no one. If they could be used in medical treatments they would face rejection. In addition, IVF embryos are created from healthy donors for pro-creation; they are unlikely to offer credible material for studying disease. Finally, many embryos stored long term in IVF clinics reportedly harbor chromosome defects — they may be good for nothing.

Under the pretext of “looking for cures,” H.R. 810 facilitates the further diversion of public resources away from practical causes for medical hope. H.R. 810 is another false step on the road to human cloning — another sham to mislead and exploit the trusting and desperate.

Nor does S. 2754, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act of 2006, offer practical solutions for disability and disease.

The aim of S. 2754 is to develop ethical sources of embryonic-like, or “pluripotent” stem cells — cells able to turn into most of the body’s fully mature “somatic” cells. Several methods show potentials for doing this:

When directed with specific chemicals, adult stem cells reportedly display pluripotent characteristics. Adult cells can be genetically “reprogrammed” to regress to more primitive stages. Finally, altered forms of cloning, called “ANT” and “OAR,” have been suggested that may or may not create human life.

However, pro-life, theological, and patient advocacy leaders do not universally accept Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT) or Oocyte (egg)-Assisted Reprogramming (OAR) as an ethical uses of research resources, or moral directions for science.

“While we are encouraged that science continues to look for ways to derive [embryonic] stem cells ethically,” says Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, “it would appear that the ANT/OAR method fails that test because it allows the manipulation of human life and attempts to redefine the intrinsic value of a human being.”

In theory, genetic defects might be introduced in the cloning process (ANT/OAR) that would create embryonic ‘artifacts’ able to yield embryonic stem cells. ANT/OAR supporters claim that such artifacts would not involve human life. Others, including myself, see ANT/OAR as creating a mutated human embryo. Still others believe that animal research might resolve this point.

“More research is needed in animal models to settle the [morality] question,” says Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of Pro-Life Activities for the American Council of Catholic Bishops. “That animal research, at least, could be funded by the Santorum-Specter bill.”

David Schindler, academic dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, believes that ANT/OAR reflects a “mechanistic” view of human life. In Communio, an international Catholic review, he disagrees with the previous assertion.

“Such experimentation can affirm the technical feasibility of the procedure,” Schindler wrote, “but this in itself cannot yield an answer to the crucial question: namely, whether the entity produced by OAR is a non-embryo, or an embryo that is gravely defective.”

However, for the sake of producing medical treatments and cures, it seems unlikely that society need travel this road.

The public needs safe, effective, affordable sources of replacement cells, which adult stem cells and cord blood are proven to offer. Few with disability or disease need every cell in their body replaced. Pluripotency contributes to tendencies by embryonic stem cells to form lethal tumors when implanted in adults — even if matured to later stages — and to becoming genetically unstable when matured in a petri dish. Pluripotency is a potential commercial benefit that presents definite medical drawbacks. Viewed in this light, pluripotency is another aspect of ES and cloning hype.

Jean Swenson, a spinal cord-injured quadriplegic with strong pro-life views, has actively supported spinal cord “cure” research for over twenty years.

“Embryonic-like stem cells [from ANT, OAR, or similar techniques] would have to overcome the same medical hurdles as all embryonic stem cells,” says Swenson, “such as genetic instability, tumor formation, and possible rejection. It seems futile to waste limited resources on pluripotency for its own sake. If we really care about helping patients, we should focus on adult stem cell research and clinical uses.”

Besides being impractical for the sake of the public’s health, S. 2754 may open a very dangerous ethical door — the possibility of redefining “human” to fit political and industry whims.

The Brownback-Santorum ban on fetal-farming (S. 3504) serves the interests of life — everyone’s life. Mankind doesn’t need to plunder fetuses to produce treatments and cures. Through S. 3504 we can further science for the sake of cures and keep our self-respect. H.R. 810, pure and simple, is a sham that betrays the public’s trust. S. 2754 is a perilous compromise that panders to research-related financial goals, while giving patients nothing, endangering women to harvest eggs, and blurring the lines of ethics.