Ethics & Public Policy Center

Sen. Kerry’s Stem-Cell Fairy Tales

Published in Los Angeles Times on August 22, 2004



WASHINGTON — Along with the war on terror and the economy, stem-cell research has emerged as an issue in the presidential campaign. Sen. John F. Kerry has repeatedly attacked the Bush administration for “banning” the research, declaring that “here in America we don’t sacrifice science for ideology.” In promoting the promise of stem cells at the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan said we must choose “between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology.” In response to such criticisms, First Lady Laura Bush accused Democrats of giving false hope to the sick and defended her husband, saying that the president is a great advocate of stem-cell research.

This back and forth has shed little light on the stem-cell question facing the country. Some level of confusion is probably unavoidable. The research is complicated biology, and stem cells come from a variety of sources: bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, aborted fetuses, human embryos, cloned human embryos. Adult and non-embryonic stem-cell research garners universal public support. Embryonic stem-cell research causes division because it involves the creation and destruction of human embryos at the earliest stages of human life.

Democrats are eager to discuss the issue, and Kerry’s campaign rhetoric seems to have three objectives: first, to convince the nation that Bush has “enacted a far-reaching ban on stem-cell research.” Second, to encourage Americans, especially sick ones, to believe that cures for everything from AIDS to Alzheimer’s are just around the corner. Finally, to make ethical opposition to embryo research seem not just misguided but irrational — like opposing the Earth’s orbit around the sun. All powerful claims; all false.

There is no ban on stem-cell research in America. When it comes to adult stem-cell research, Bush is a strong advocate, with the National Institutes of Health providing more than $180 million to researchers last year. When it comes to embryonic stem-cell research, there are no legal limits of any kind: New embryonic stem-cell institutes are springing up at major universities across the country; Californians will vote in November on a $3-billion bond initiative to fund embryo research; scientists at Harvard recently created 17 new embryonic stem-cell lines, and scientists in Chicago produced 50 more. To say repeatedly, as Kerry has, that Bush has “shut down” stem-cell research is absurd.

A great deal of embryonic stem-cell research is ineligible for public funding. A law, passed by Congress in 1996 and renewed annually, prohibits federal funding for research involving the destruction of human embryos. In 2001, Bush reviewed the NIH guidelines implementing the law and decided to authorize funding for research on existing embryonic stem-cell lines in which the human embryos in question had already been destroyed.

There are 22 lines currently eligible for federal funding, with more on the way. Nearly 500 shipments had been made to scientists, and the NIH spent $25 million on this kind of research last year.

Critics of Bush’s policy complain that there are not enough usable cell lines and that the existing lines are not as good as newer ones. But their criticism fails to see the policy’s larger aim: to promote basic research without creating a public incentive for further human embryo destruction and without forcing all citizens to pay for an activity that many believe is morally wrong. The president’s policy neither bans all embryo research nor funds all embryo research. It offers a prudent middle course.

The second Kerry claim — that stem-cell inspired treatments for many dreaded diseases are imminent — is even more irresponsible. In June, the Washington Post published a story, quoting many leading scientists in the field, that said stem-cell research was unlikely to lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s. When asked why Alzheimer’s continues to be a favorite of stem-cell research advocates, NIH scientist Ron McKay replied: “People need a fairy tale.” Shortly after the death of President Reagan, who suffered from the disease, Kerry devoted one of the Democrats’ weekly radio addresses to this fairy tale, declaring that “stem-cell research has brought us closer to finding ways to treat Alzheimer’s.”

Stem-cell research — and perhaps embryonic stem-cell research alone — has the potential to produce a cure for or ameliorate certain terrible diseases, Parkinson’s and juvenile diabetes being the most promising. But the outcomes of this research are currently wholly speculative. Cures are not, as Kerry repeatedly claims, “at our fingertips.”

The hard question for the nation is whether the search for cures justifies a national project of human embryo destruction. But Kerry speaks as if there is no ethical dilemma at all; at most, he professes his “faith” that the ethical issues will be “resolved.” He offers no argument for why it is ethically permissible to destroy human embryos and no details about which limits, if any, scientists should observe.

This brings us to the heart of the matter — the human embryo. These “clumps of cells” and the powers of development that make them useful to researchers are also reasons to accord them profound respect. These embryos are microscopic — but size should not determine their fate. They lack higher consciousness, but consciousness should not be the exclusive determinant of humanness; otherwise, we’d treat whole classes of living people as less than human.

Many embryos are left over in fertility clinics — but the idea that they are “going to die anyway” is not a convincing ethical argument for using them in research; otherwise, why not routinely use death row inmates as sources of organs? Frozen embryos are going to die because we created and then abandoned them. And despite the easy temptation to equate frozen embryos to corpses, there is a decisive difference between the two: The former are not yet mature; the latter are no longer living.

Good people will draw different ethical or political lines in the debate over stem-cell research. But everyone should approach the question with humility and sobriety, lest we undermine the dignity of human life in the noble effort to save it. So far, the Kerry campaign has failed this test.

- Eric Cohen is editor and founder of The New Atlantis and a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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