TCS Daily

The Wisdom of a 'Creepy Solution'

By Ramesh Ponnuru - December 9, 2004 12:00 AM

A friend of mine who has worked in prepping many political candidates for debates says that he always tells them to think, first of all, about whether there is any truth to a point their opponent has made. That is not a bad rule in general, and especially for opponents of embryo-destructive stem-cell research when considering two promising new avenues of research.

The first thing that opponents of the research should learn from the proponents is that there have to be solid reasons to prohibit something: an aesthetic dislike for it -- the "ick factor" -- isn't enough. The second thing is that research is, in general, desirable, unless there are good reasons for blocking it.

It is also important for opponents to remember the reasons that they think some kinds of research should be prohibited. The first is that the human embryo is a human being with a right not to be killed. One of the premises behind that reason is that the human embryo is a living human organism, a member of the human species. It is not simply that the human embryo is alive and has human DNA -- that much is true of a living human skin cell, which nobody regards as a human being. It is also necessary that the entity in question be distinct, not a part of some other organism, and capable of directing its own integral functioning and development. The second is that it is wrong and dangerous to reduce in principle a living human being, as defined above, to the status of a product of manufacture.

With these principles in mind, opponents of embryonic stem-cell research can evaluate two research proposals recently put before the Kass council on bioethics. The first, by two Columbia University scientists, claims that some of the embryos frozen at fertility clinics are already dead -- that is, they are no longer capable of directing their own integral functioning as unitary entities, nor do they any longer possess the capacity for development, even in the most hospitable of circumstances. But it may be possible to take usable stem cells from these embryos. Since they are already dead, the taking of the stem cells will not kill them (whereas taking stem cells from a live embryo would kill it). The proposal is for more research into figuring out how to identify which are the dead embryos and how to take usable stem cells from them.

(There is a variant of this proposal. Call it 1b. The idea here is that some of these embryos are near death -- in extremis. Accepted standards of medical ethics permit doctors to do certain things to patients in extremis, even to benefit others, that they are not permitted to do to patients expected to survive more than a few minutes. There may be a way to take stem cells from these embryos without killing them or shortening their lives.)

The second proposal is a twist on cloning. One way to think about the creation of a human embryo through cloning is that it mimics the process of fertilization. William Hurlbut, a member of the Kass council and a Stanford Medical School professor, suggests mimicking the results of a defective fertilization. Nature sometimes produces "teratomas," eggs without male genetic contributions that begin to divide and grow, even growing body parts such as hair and teeth. But these teratomas are not organisms: They lack the ability to organize themselves and to direct their own integral functioning and development. They are disordered growths, like tumors. Hurlbut suggests that we might be able to produce teratomas artificially and derive from them usable stem cells that are functional equivalents of embryonic stem cells. Since human teratomas are not human beings, this research would involve no killing.

People involved in the stem-cell debate are still trying to figure out what they think about these ideas. Are they feasible? Is it possible to figure out which embryos are dead while following the first proposal? (Is it possible to get stem cells without causing death, in 1b?) As for Hurlbut's idea: We know that it is possible to get stem cells from mouse teratomas. Is it possible to create teratomas? (Hurlbut thinks that switching a gene or genes off and then on would do the trick.)

Would we want to do these things if we could? To approve the first proposal risks complicity with the evils of in vitro fertilization and especially its current practice here. American clinics, unlike their more regulated European counterparts, create many more human embryos than they intend to implant. Some of the "excess" embryos are killed. It would be wrong to create an incentive to create still more embryos. Perhaps a time limit, like the one the president placed on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, would be necessary to avoid this problem: Only embryos that had been created by a certain date would be eligible for the research.

The Hurlbut proposal raises more complicated issues. Some pro-lifers think he is proposing the equivalent of deliberately creating a disabled embryo. And even if that is not what he wants to do, it is possible that disabled embryos could be created in practice by researchers pursuing his idea. Pro-lifers worry that the mere making of either proposal undermines them politically, since they have been arguing that embryonic stem-cell research is a dead end and adult stem-cell research the path to medical progress. Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research aren't sure what to make of it, either.

I'll address these concerns in an article for TCS tomorrow. For now, let me just say that in principle, the research Hurlbut is proposing seems to me morally unobjectionable. It violates neither of the principles mentioned above, nor any other compelling ones that come to mind. There are, however, some practical concerns that need to be addressed. I'll get to them, too, on Friday.

The author is senior editor at National Review.


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