Next, embryo farms?

National | Government moves ahead with funding controversial stem cell research, despite congressional ban

Issue: "Clinton's great escape," Feb. 6, 1999

More news from the U.S. Department of Parsing and Semantics: The National Institute of Health (NIH), the main provider of medical research funds in the United States, announced on Jan. 19 that it will within months begin funding stem cell research. The research is controversial because the necessary stem cells can only be derived from human embryos and aborted early-term babies; the NIH announcement itself is controversial because Congress has prohibited federal funding of research on human embryos.

No problem, NIH officials contend: Such stem cell research does not fall under the federal ban on embryo research because the cells themselves do not constitute an embryo and could not develop into a human being.

"That's like saying we won't subsidize the killing of bears, but we will subsidize the bear-rug industry," scoffs John Frame, a professor of apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. "I would presume that the ban on embryo research is for the purpose of protecting embryos, or at least minimizing their destruction. Financing research that presupposes the destruction of embryos would certainly violate that purpose."

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Why are embryonic stem cells important? As the protogenic "seeds" of approximately 210 varying types of cells, stem cells are the fountainhead of human cellular differentiation. If scientists could learn how to trigger these "master cells" to develop into specific varieties, they might produce life-saving therapies: new heart cells to repair disease-damaged hearts, new brain cells for Alzheimer's patients, or insulin-producing cells that could free diabetics from reliance on medication.

Some pro-life adherents, physicians among them, believe wholesale stem cell research could influence a mother's decision to abort her baby, perhaps in hopes that some "good" could trickle down from her decision to terminate her pregnancy. Such "presumed good outcomes" might, according to the Journal of Biblical Ethics in Medicine, lend more social legitimacy to abortion or "even cause some women to get pregnant with the specific intent of donating tissue to a loved one in need of this type of therapy."

But here's what's key: The benefits are rooted in the destruction of human life.

"Members of Congress and the human rights community rightly condemn the People's Republic of China for executing prisoners in order to obtain organs and tissues," says Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). "Now NIH proposes to offer federal subsidies to researchers who will experiment with cells obtained from human beings ruthlessly killed in the first weeks of life." Mr. Smith called the NIH announcement "the latest step by the Clinton Administration to treat human beings as property to be manipulated and destroyed."

Three years ago, the federal government banned research using human embryos. But privately funded researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins University last year successfully isolated and multiplied embryonic stem cells obtained both from unused fertility clinic embryos and from aborted babies. Their success-considered by some scientists to be among the most significant modern medical advances-may have opened a legislative loophole through which federal dollars will soon flow.

In deference to the federal ban, NIH "will not fund the act of destruction itself," says Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "but will reward those who destroy embryos by paying them to develop the cells and tissues they have obtained by destructive means."

Offering a downstream financial incentive is just one of the myriad complex, and sometimes Orwellian, ethics scenarios currently under discussion by bioethics experts. Could federal funding lead, for example, to embryo "farms," in which stem cells would be harvested and the embryos then destroyed? Should taxpayers opposed to abortion be forced to pay for research to which they morally object? If harvesting stem cells from voluntarily aborted fetuses were deemed unethical, would it be okay to cull stem cells from in-vitro fertilization clinic embryos that would be discarded?

"No," says Mr. Frame. "We should not use cells that become available only though the destruction of a human life. I may not purchase the tusk of an elephant that has been destroyed illegally. The same principle should certainly hold true for stem cells obtained from the taking of a human life."

Some ethical questions remain murky. For example, should people opposed to abortion, and any stem cell research derived from it, personally accept future medical treatment options such research might yield? And what if scientists, beginning with fetal or embryo sources, reproduce large supplies of stem cells in laboratories, so that in 10 years, for example, no more fetuses or embryos are being used?

"Could Christians make use of [cells not derived unethically]?" asks Dr. Frame. "It would hard to draw the line, but I think there is one somewhere. Christians will have to make decisions as to the point at which the pool of stem cells is no longer tainted by its origin. That won't be an easy question to answer."

Lynn Vincent
Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.


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