Congress Can Support Stem Cell Research Without Destroying Human Life

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 6, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Congress Can Support Stem Cell Research Without Destroying Human Life Email this article
Printer friendly page

By Robert P. George and Eric Cohen
July 6, 2006 Note: Robert George is the McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Eric Cohen is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of the New Atlantis.

Over and over again, scientists and ethicists say: Here and no farther. And then they seek to go farther, in the name of "progress." Yet this moral challenge also presents us with a golden political opportunity. Last week the Senate agreed to consider three bioethics bills: one that would permit federal funding for research on embryos left over in fertility clinics, one that would prohibit fetal farming and one that would fund various alternative methods of producing genetically controlled, pluripotent stem cells — just the kind of stem cells we would get from cloning, but without the embryo destruction.

The first of these bills is misguided and unnecessary, and those senators who have pledged to support it should reconsider and change course. For the first time, it would use taxpayer dollars to encourage the destruction of embryos, and it would do so without giving researchers the genetically customized cells they desire. The second and third bills, however, would enable our country to explore the potential of stem cells without violating human dignity or taking human life.

In the end, the lesson of the cloning scandal is not simply that specific research guidelines were violated; it is that human cloning, even for research, is so morally problematic that its practitioners will always be covering their tracks, especially as they try to meet the false expectations of miraculous progress that they have helped create. If cloning is really so important for research, then overturning the Bush administration policy to fund research on "spare" IVF embryos is not very useful. But because cloning is so morally problematic, we need to find another way forward.

Instead of engaging in fraud and coverup, or conducting experiments that violate the moral principles of many citizens, we should look to scientific creativity for an answer. Since the cloning fraud, many scientists — such as Markus Grompe at Oregon Health & Science University and Rudolf Jaenisch at MIT — have been doing just that. And others, such as Kevin Eggan at Harvard, may have found a technique, called "cell fusion," that would create new, versatile, genetically controlled stem cell lines by fusing existing stem cells and ordinary DNA. Scientists in Japan just announced that they may have found a way to do this without even needing an existing stem cell line.

In other words: all the benefits of research cloning without the ethical problems. Looking ahead, it is becoming increasingly likely that reprogramming adult cells to pluripotency, rather than destroying human embryos, will be the future of regenerative medicine. It offers both a more efficient and far more ethical way forward.

Of course, we should not pin all our hopes on any particular technique, which is why the bill co-sponsored by Sens. Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter (usually sharp opponents in the stem cell fight) would fund any creative proposal for advancing stem cell research without destroying nascent human life. Too often in this debate, science and ethics are regarded as being on a collision course. They need not be. For what could be more pro-science than relying upon scientific ingenuity to lead the way to stem cell advances without conducting unethical cloning experiments?

Click here to read the full article.