TCS Daily

Learning From Teratomas, II

By Ramesh Ponnuru - December 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Yesterday, I wrote about two proposals for research that might yield the same benefits as embryo-destructive stem-cell research, but without the embryo destruction. Two Columbia University scientists suggested that it might be possible to figure out which frozen embryos at fertility clinics were already dead and to take usable stem-cells from them. And William Hurlbut, a member of the Kass council, suggested that it might be possible to get the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells from artificially-created teratomas. In nature, teratomas are the result of defective fertilizations. They are biological entities that have some of the properties of embryos, but are not living organisms.

Not everyone is persuaded that Hurlbut's approach avoids the moral problems that embryo-destructive research entails. Some pro-lifers seem to be under the impression that a teratoma is a disabled embryo, so that Hurlbut is proposing deliberately to create disabled embryos. If what Hurlbut has in mind were the creation of embryos that have the capacity to direct their own organization and develop but, let's say, were designed to be unable to implant, they would have a point: those would be severely disabled embryos. Hurlbut's proposal, however, involves a scenario with no embryo at all.

Some of the ancillary objections to embryonic stem-cell research would still apply. Hurlbut's proposal would require a supply of egg cells -- where would they come from? Some opponents of embryonic stem-cell research have suggested that poor women would be exploited for their eggs. To the extent that's a valid fear, it would apply to the Hurlbut proposal, too. But that would be a reason for limiting the research, not for not having it at all.

Some pro-lifers are worried that the Hurlbut proposal weakens their case for adult stem-cell research. Many pro-lifers have made the case that adult stem cells have much more potential than embryonic stem cells. (I never have, but that's another story.) Pro-lifers may be forgetting what they should be keeping their eye on. If the underlying point of the adult stem-cell argument has been to say that it may be possible to derive scientific benefits without killing human embryos, then the Hurlbut proposal strengthens that case.

If, on the other hand, the argument is that embryonic stem-cell research doesn't have much potential and that this lack of potential is an independent reason to restrict it, then the argument deserves to fail. If a line of research isn't morally objectionable, whether it is likely to succeed or not should have no bearing on whether it is allowed. We should prohibit cloning for research because it involves the injustice of killing cloned human embryos. Where there is no injustice, there is no reason to prohibit research.

It may very well be that the kind of research Hurlbut envisions will not produce any therapeutic applications for years and years. It may only be useful in constructing disease models. I have been happy to point out that cloning and killing for disease models is not as politically salable as cloning to cure Michael J. Fox. But disease models are worth having if they can be gotten without injustice.

Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research have a different set of objections. Most scientists claim to have no intention of implanting a cloned human embryo, letting it gestate, and doing research on a cloned fetus. But if some of them have that intention -- and it's hard to believe that liberal model legislation on the subject keeps allowing for this possibility on accident -- then the Hurlbut proposal will not advance it. Some liberals think that restricting research to the Hurlbut proposal would be a capitulation to the idea that theocrats can regulate scientific inquiry; they want to fight on principle even if they can get scientific benefits another way. Michael Gazzaniga, the least thoughtful member of the Kass council, seems to fall into this camp.

Finally, there is the ick factor, which transcends left and right. William Saletan wrote intelligently about the proposals before the Kass council. He seems to regard the idea of creating teratomas as a "horror," but he can't quite articulate a reason for objecting to it. Kass himself, as Saletan notes, has written about the "wisdom of repugnance." There has always been an ambiguity in Kass's treatment of that phrase. Repugnance can embody good reasons for objecting to something that we are not immediately or consciously aware of. When we feel repugnance, we should stop and try to think through whether it is telling us something. But repugnance does not always have something to teach us, and if we cannot find anything we have no reason for objecting. Kass does not object to Hurlbut's proposal, and has disavowed the idea (which had previously given him pause) that it should be rejected on essentially "aesthetic" grounds. It will be interesting to see where other Kassians come down.

My own view is that the proposals are promising, especially the Hurlbut proposal. Research should proceed to find out whether it is, in fact, possible to create the kind of biological entities he has described -- and that research should, for now, proceed in animals rather than human beings, in case the result is to create a deformed embryo. (Note that I'm discussing a technical question, not a conceptual one. We should worry that trying to produce a teratoma might in practice create embryos, not that they are in principle indistinguishable.) Meanwhile, there is no good reason for opponents of embryo-destructive research to stop fighting for the maximum politically feasible legal protection for human life that we can get. A ban on creating human embryos by cloning, restrictions on the age that an embryo can reach before it can be killed in research, and a defense of Bush's limits on funding for embryo-destructive research are all still warranted. Meanwhile, we should explore whether we can make gains in knowledge and health in just and licit ways.

The writer is senior editor at National Review.


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