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From the April, 2004 issue of Touchstone


Stem-Cell Options by Robert P. George

Stem-Cell Options

A Report from the President’s Council on Bioethics

by Robert P. George

Following is our senior editor Robert P. George’s statement introducing “Monitoring Stem Cell Research: A report of the President’s Council on Bioethics,” issued on January 15, 2004. His report begins by acknowledging the differences in the nation and on the council on such questions as “the moral standing of the human embryo and the moral permissibility of deliberately taking embryonic human life,” and continues:

It should be understood that the purpose of this report is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It sets forth facts and reports opinions; it does not take positions on matters on which the council is divided.

Those of us who believe that a policy of funding research involving the destruction of human embryos would be unjust share with our colleagues a desire for stem-cell science to go forward unimpeded where research can be conducted without taking nascent human life. We are heartened by the clinical successes of adult stem-cell-based therapies. Such therapies are already in very encouraging clinical trials in humans for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, immune deficiencies, sickle-cell anemia, and other afflictions. Certain adult stem-cell-based therapies have already enabled some patients with Type 1 diabetes to throw away their insulin needles.

While taking into account Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn’s caution about the so-far preliminary and incomplete status of research on multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs), we believe that promising and ethically unimpeachable research of this kind should be encouraged and generously funded. We do not wish the controversy over embryonic research to mislead the public into supposing that there is something ethically suspect about stem-cell research itself. There is not. There are forms of important stem-cell research that do not require the killing of embryonic human beings. Americans can unanimously and enthusiastically support this research.

It is important not to hype adult stem-cell research, but it is equally important not to obscure its achievements and very considerable promise. By the same token, it is important not to hype the benefits or promise of embryonic research. The evidence does not support the claim one still occasionally hears that embryonic stem cells show the greatest promise for therapeutic uses. The difficulty in controlling them, and particularly their tendency to tumor formation, makes them too dangerous for clinical trials at this time.

Very recent studies suggest that embryonic cell cultures may tend to accumulate extra chromosomes over time, the very chromosomes associated with formation of cancerous tumors. These problems may or may not eventually be solved, but plainly they need to be soberly taken into account in pressing upon those of us who have independent moral objections to embryo-destructive experimentation the therapeutic promise of this research.

At the same time, no one would wish to prevent or impede research if stem cells of the type currently derived by destroying embryonic human life could be derived without resort to embryo destruction. The report we issue today for the first time follows up a possibility raised by our colleague William Hurlbut in his personal statement attached to our earlier report on human cloning.

Today’s report suggests the possibility of deriving cells from entities whose initial properties in certain ways resemble those of a living human embryo, but whose direction of growth and trajectory of development, due to fundamental epigenetic differences, are from the very beginning quite distinct. Such entities, roughly analogous to hydatidiform moles or other disordered growths sometimes appearing in nature, would not qualify as whole, living members of the species Homo sapiens. On no one’s account would they be considered embryonic human beings.

If in fact these entities are capable of yielding embryonic-type stem cells, these stem cells could be harvested without raising the ethical issue of embryo destruction. Whether entities thus envisaged can be produced is a matter of fact that, I believe, should be explored. Whether their production would raise ethical questions that, perhaps, Dr. Hurlbut and I have not considered, others would have to say.

But given the ethical impasse in the country and on the council on the issue of embryo research, I am glad that our report today elevates the profile of Dr. Hurlbut’s proposal. I commend him for seeking to address a vexing and divisive issue with a creative solution that would honor the concerns of reasonable people of goodwill across the spectrum of opinion.

Robert P. George , a Roman Catholic, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books). He is a Senior Editor of Touchstone.

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