An Unreal Debate

Published January 10, 2007

National Review Online

This week offers a perfect snapshot of the sorry state of the embryonic-stem-cell-research debate. On Monday, the newspapers were full of headlines about a new scientific paper showing that stem cells derived from amniotic fluid appear to have many of the same capabilities as embryonic stem cells, but without the ethical pitfalls of embryo destruction. But on Thursday, the House of Representatives plans to take up once again a bill that would overturn President Bush’s stem-cell-research-funding policy, and have the government use taxpayer money to encourage the destruction of embryos for their cells.

That disconnect mirrors the larger detachment of the political push for embryonic-stem-cell funding from the actual facts on the ground. Again and again, advocates for relaxing the ethical standards on funding make assertions and arguments with no basis in fact. Again and again they refuse to acknowledge the increasing evidence that genuine alternatives to embryo-destructive research may be possible.

The false claims are familiar by now. We continue to hear there is a “ban” on federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research. But in fact, the Bush administration was the first to fund the research, and has devoted well over $100 million to it since 2001, though only in ways that do not encourage the further destruction of embryos.

We continue to hear that 100 million Americans are sick and could be cured by stem-cell research, but it is hard to imagine what that claim might be based on. In March of last year, Rep. Mark Souder (R., Ind.) had the following exchange in writing with Dr. James Battey, director of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force:

Souder: A common figure tossed around regarding the “promise” of embryonic stem cell research is that it can provide cures for 100 million people. Is there any scientific evidence to actually support that claim?

Battey: It is unclear where this statistic came from. Human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is a relatively new field of science, having been first reported by James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin in 1998. More basic research needs to be conducted in the laboratory before the full potential for treating diseases is clear.

No one has since come forward to justify the figure, yet the stem-cell campaigners, including members of Congress, continue to use it.

We continue to hear that the stem-cell lines eligible for funding under the Bush policy are contaminated by exposure to animal cells, and therefore useless for any future therapeutic applications. But the FDA has plainly said that past exposure to animal products need not make a cell line ineligible for future use, and in any case a series of papers in the past year (most notably this one by stem-cell pioneer James Thomson) has shown animal materials can be removed from the existing lines. The most recent global survey of stem-cell work also shows that the Bush-approved lines continue to be used in a majority of embryonic-stem-cell projects worldwide — so researchers hardly consider them useless.

We continue to hear that the Bush-approved lines lack genetic diversity, or are not matched to patients with specific diseases. But the bill before the House this week would not address either point, since it would only make available more lines of cells derived from embryos created for in vitro fertilization. To match cell lines to patients using existing techniques, researchers would have to employ human cloning; and to derive a line with a genetic heritage not commonly represented by IVF patients, they would have to create embryos specifically to destroy them for research. Advocates of embryo-destructive research will likely move to endorse these radical steps next, but for the moment they claim they do not support the creation of embryos specifically for research, and in any case their bill would not fund it.

We continue to hear that American scientists are falling behind in embryonic-stem-cell research because federal support is lacking. But the latest numbers clearly demonstrate a large and stable American lead in the field. No other country even comes close to matching the output of American embryonic-stem-cell researchers.

We continue to hear that the American public passionately supports embryonic-stem-cell research and demands the loosening of the ethical boundaries imposed by President Bush. But actual surveys of public opinion suggest views are divided and not firmly held.

Strangely, though, for all this talk, the opponents of President Bush’s stem-cell-funding policy have not had much to say about the real news in the field over the past two years. That news has been almost exclusively about the emerging possibility of developing cells with the abilities of those derived from embryos, but without the need to harm human embryos.

A number of possible avenues have presented themselves. One would involve reprogramming adult cells to function like embryonic stem cells, whether by fusing them with existing stem-cell lines or by injecting them with the right combination of chemical factors. Another study has shown that such “pluripotent” cells could be derived from testes. And yet other researchers have begun to find cells with such capabilities in the placenta collected after birth, in human cord blood, and, as we saw earlier this week, also in amniotic fluid. Numerous labs around the world are now working to develop these techniques further, and to pursue more of them.

What we’re seeing is not exactly a search for one particular magic bullet to end the stem-cell debate. Rather, these studies show that the capacity to differentiate into a great many different cell types may not be exclusive to embryonic stem cells or any other one particular type of cell, and that the debate we have had now for the better part of a decade may have been based on a faulty premise to begin with.

All of this suggests the divisive fight over embryonic-stem-cell research might just be amenable to a consensus solution: a way to get the type of cells the scientists seek while avoiding any harm to nascent human life.

But advocates of looser funding rules will not take “yes” for an answer. Rather than jump at the chance to promote a common-ground way forward on stem cells, they have chosen to ignore the emerging alternatives, and insist that embryo-destructive research must be funded.

Last year, when the Congress passed the very same bill the House will consider this week, several members of both houses proposed an additional bill that would have encouraged research into new ethical methods of deriving embryonic-like cells. The Senate passed the bill unanimously. But in the House, most of the Democrats and a few Republican opponents of the president’s policy decided they could not support the search for a solution. They opposed the bill, and prevented its passage. Their intransigence sent a very strange message: They would have the federal government fund the exploration of pluripotent stem cells only if it involved destroying human embryos. Otherwise, they were not interested. They would only back the science if it were controversial. These opponents of the stem-cell-alternatives bill included the entire Democratic House leadership, and this year they have prevented the same bill from even coming to a vote.

Step by step these past few years, the public arguments for overturning the Bush funding policy and using taxpayer dollars to encourage embryo destruction have fallen apart, and the possibility of a consensus solution to this divisive battle has emerged. But the leaders of the effort to overturn the president’s policy have opted to ignore the facts and turn down a potential solution. They would prefer a political rallying point over a scientific way forward. Let us hope the Congress as a whole does not make the same choice.

— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine.

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