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Science's fairy tales

Science | BIOETHICS: Emotional appeals, sympathetic victims shroud the stem-cell debate

Issue: "Democrats are all smiles," Aug. 7, 2004

Researcher Jean Peduzzi-Nelson of the University of Alabama-Birmingham didn't expect a fight when she testified before a Senate committee about her research into the uses of adult stem cells. But defenders of embryonic stem-cell research were cruising to bruise her.

"Are you a member of a pro-life committee?" barked Sen. Frank Lautenberg after being told adult stem cells are as good at treating diseases as embryonic stem cells. When Sen. Sam Brownback tried to intercede on Dr. Peduzzi-Nelson's behalf, Sen. Lautenberg persisted. "Whether I'm pro-life or pro-choice, I wish all these types of things could be kept out of the discussion," Dr. Peduzzi-Nelson said.

Nice try. Since President Ronald Reagan's death in June from Alzheimer's disease, the study of embryonic stem cells-obtained by dissecting intact human embryos-has once again become a hot political issue. Stem cells are blank slates that the body can turn into any type of cell. Embryonic stem cells adapt more easily than adult stem cells harvested from placenta or bone marrow.

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Along with Nancy Reagan and son Ron Reagan (who spoke on the issue at last week's Democratic National Convention), 58 senators implored President Bush to change his stance and allow federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. And in California, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar donated $1 million to support a state initiative to free $3 million in state funds for embryonic stem-cell studies. But Christians view that research as creating a life simply to harvest it for spare parts.

Medical bioethicist and registered nurse Barbara Quigley explains how lay people sometimes have a hard time thinking critically about embryonic stem-cell research. Emotional pleas like Mrs. Reagan's for Alzheimer's patients are easier to understand than the dense scientific jargon surrounding the techniques of stem-cell research. In February, when South Korean scientists fertilized a human egg with donated DNA, they created a cloned human embryo. Scientists then grew the embryo in a test tube for two weeks, before dicing it for fresh stem cells. Ms. Quigley, of the Center for Bioethics and Culture in St. Louis, says researchers are abusing the topic's complexities: "Some proponents want the public to misunderstand-that we're not dealing with an embryo; we're dealing with a clump of cells. It may not be fertilized in the usual manner, but it's still a fertilized embryo."

American Christians have found strange allies in protecting the tiny human life. Three countries-Austria, Germany, and Ireland-all ban research on embryos. Until just this month, France banned research on spare embryonic stem cells obtained from in-vitro labs. The French still ban cloning embryos, but many countries and organizations want to start creating embryos to study.

The Texas Medical Association voted to support both kinds of stem-cell research, citing a little-known American Medical Association policy that says cloning for biomedical research is "consistent with medical ethics." Some major research universities like Harvard and the University of California-San Francisco have started destroying embryos to harvest stem cells. Thirty-three states are considering using state money to fund the practice.

The malleability of embryonic stem cells tantalizes some scientists. Unlike adult stem cells harvested from bone marrow or placenta, young stem cells can theoretically be transformed into any type of tissue. Someday scientists could grow perfectly cloned organ matches for transplants, cloning supporters say.

What about Alzheimer's disease? In a speech last May, Mrs. Reagan challenged Republicans to drop their opposition to embryonic stem-cell research. But most researchers agree that a cure for Alzheimer's disease is one of the least likely outcomes from embryonic stem-cell research.

Nigel Cameron, co-editor of Human Dignity in the Biotech Century, says government sanction of embryo research would lead to a landslide of newly fertilized embryos: "If you go with the argument, 'Give us a few more [stem] cell lines,' that could entail creating possibly billions of embryos expressly for the purpose [of destroying them]. There's no stumbling point between the two."

Even though the late president was staunchly pro-life, Mrs. Reagan makes a powerful emotional argument that proponents will copy. "To start with, people need a fairy tale," Ronald D.G. McKay, a prominent stem-cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told The Washington Post. "Maybe that's unfair, but they need a story line that's relatively simple to understand."

Ms. Quigley also sees a simple story line: "Embryonic stem-cell research requires the destruction of human embryos, and I think that's wrong. The process [in cloned fertilization] may be different, but the product is identical. If you took those cells and planted them in the uterus of a woman, the result would be a human baby."

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