Ethics & Public Policy Center

Embryonic Problems

Published in National Review Online on March 20, 2006


For the past few years, the United States has engaged in an ethically weighty, politically charged, scientifically complex debate about stem cells and cloning. One side touts the medical promise of stem cells produced by destroying living human embryos, and blames the Bush administration for stalling the advance of science by restricting federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research. The other side defends the moral worth of nascent human life, and promotes novel methods of deriving embryonic-type stem cells without destroying human embryos.

At the center of this fight is the cloned human embryo. When Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, a veterinary scientist from South Korea, announced in 2004 that he had created the first embryonic human clones, and then in 2005 that he could routinely produce stem cells from them, the reaction in the American scientific community combined elation and frustration. The elation came from the science itself — the holy grail of stem-cell research seemed one giant step closer. With cloned embryos, we could produce genetically controlled stem-cell models of disease, and perhaps one day produce rejection-proof cell therapies. The frustration came from the fact that South Korea, not America, seemed to be leading the way.

Then the world found out that the research was a fraud. Moreover, the methods used to attempt it — including the exploitation of young female researchers as sources of the eggs needed for cloning — were morally dubious, to say the least. Research advocates felt the blow, but also tried to spin the scandal to their advantage: If only the U.S. would fund this research, they said, it would proceed under stricter ethical supervision. And besides, why let a few bad scientific apples spoil the fruits of medical progress for everyone?

But these arguments do not stand up under scrutiny, and the episode in South Korea was a clarifying moment, both scientifically and ethically.

First, the egg problem is now visible for all to see. To even attempt so-called “therapeutic cloning,” the South Koreans needed to harvest hundreds of human eggs. To obtain the eggs, they pressured young women in their own laboratory or paid “suppliers” and then forced them to lie about it. The women underwent ovarian hyper-stimulation, then the insertion of a needle into their ovaries — a risky and unpleasant procedure. For this research to proceed beyond South Korea’s failed attempts, whether in Seoul or at Stanford, many thousands and perhaps millions of women would need to become egg donors — or (as some say) egg mercenaries. No responsible doctor would allow his patient to undergo such risks and burdens simply to aid a speculative project of research, no matter how altruistic the aims. And no decent society would countenance the buying and selling of human eggs on the open market.

Second, the political agenda of some in the scientific community is now clear. The future of stem-cell research is rightly a political issue — an issue for deliberation and resolution in the forums of democracy — involving a debate about the ethics of embryo-destructive research, the values of society, and the priorities of the nation. But some scientists, pretending that they are free of political conviction, purport to speak only in the name of science when they demand the public right to use of human embryos as raw materials for research and public funding to pay for their experiments. Embryo research may prove to be scientifically useful, but science alone cannot tell us whether such research is morally good. To promote the embryo research agenda, elite journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine have stated publicly that they will give special attention to research involving embryonic stem cells, not simply because of its scientific merit but because of its political value. To these scientists, embryo research has become a litmus test for being “pro-science,” and the central front in the alleged war of scientific reason against religious barbarians.

Of course, the scientists seeking to sell embryonic stem cell research hardly rely on reason alone to make their public appeal. They rely instead on a potent combination of celebrity and pathos, with 30-second television commercial spots promising to make the lame walk again and testimony from actors like the late Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox. To advance their cause, they have set aside the rigorous skepticism and high empirical standards that are the bedrock of responsible science. Political utility is now among the criteria for publication.

To this end, Science magazine “fast-tracked” the Huang cloning papers in order to send a message to American policymakers: South Korea is advancing, America is falling behind, all because of the Bush policy on embryonic stem cell funding. (Forget the fact that no one has yet proposed a bill to actually use federal dollars to fund cloned embryo research, only to permit funding for research on embryos left over in fertility clinics. And forget the fact that California has allocated $3 billion for just such research cloning, so that money is not the real problem.) The willingness of scientific journals to publish scientific papers according to non-scientific criteria is remarkable. The following mea culpa, from Scientific American, is remarkable for both its honesty and remorse: “Hwang is guilty of raising false expectations, but too many of us held the ladder for him.”

Third, the South Korea scandal has revealed, yet again, the weak ethical arguments marshaled in defense of “therapeutic cloning,” the latest example coming from Dr. Michael Gazzaniga in the New York Times. Gazzaniga calls the early cloned embryo just a “hunk of cells,” and says that human dignity resides in a “lifetime of experiences and discovery.” Of course, infants do not have “a lifetime of experiences and discovery” under their belt. Surely Dr. Gazzaniga does not want to harvest their organs. And stem cell scientists and their advocates may tell us that the embryo is just a “hunk of cells,” but they seem to want that hunk of cells quite desperately. It is dishonest to separate the special biological powers that an embryo possesses from the special organism that an embryo is. To the untutored human eye, embryos may seem like mere clumps of cells with no special value. But we also know that a human embryo is an individual human life in its earliest stage, and many of us believe that human life at all stages and in all conditions deserves basic respect.

Finally, the South Korea scandal only strengthens the case for developing scientific alternatives to research cloning — and more specifically, methods of obtaining the genetically tailored, pluripotent, rejection-proof stem cells scientists want without producing or destroying human embryos. In just the past year, both Science and Nature have published papers demonstrating that such techniques — such as fusing donor cells with an existing embryonic stem cell line to create a new, genetically identical one — may be possible. Such research, using the stem-cell lines approved by President Bush, would be eligible now for federal funding. And with the revelations of fraud in South Korea, such alternative methods are probably further along scientifically than “therapeutic cloning.”

If partisanship can be put aside, it may be possible to advance research in a way that all citizens can embrace, and to replace the corruption of cloning with responsible science. That is an outcome that should appeal to everybody. And it would be a silver lining in a scandal that has tainted a broad swath of science — and not only in Korea.

– Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Eric Cohen is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of the ethics and technology journal The New Atlantis.

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