Orrin Hatch, Utah’s Republican senior senator, is a firm opponent of abortion. He is also a firm supporter of research on embryonic stem cells, even though this involves destruction of the embryos. The senator’s reasons for this latter position are mainly two. He believes, as he has said, that life starts in the womb, “not in a petri dish,” and he believes this research on embryos has promise of developing regenerative therapies for such devastating afflictions as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and for the injuries that produce paraplegics. On July 18, Mr. Hatch was one of the 63 senators who voted for substantial increases in federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
On the other hand, President George W. Bush and the 37 senators who voted against that bill, along with the members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and millions of other citizens, are opposed to enlarging federal grants for research on embryonic stem cells. They are just as compassionate as Senator Hatch and just as hopeful that scientific inquiries will find cures for crippling sicknesses. All the same, they oppose research even on 5- or 6-day-old embryos, because it regularly destroys human life in its earliest stages. On this account, President Bush on July 19 vetoed that bill, which would have removed the restrictions he imposed in 2001 when he limited embryonic stem cell research to the 22 authorized stem cell colonies already in existence.
How does it happen that on this issue there is an irreconcilable division between two groups of thoughtful and sympathetic people? No doubt the answer is complex, but it includes the difference between those whose thinking is dominated by the imagination and those who think more abstractly. Publicists for embryonic stem cell research often point out that the embryos used for this research are no larger than the dot at the end of this sentence. Not only do they not look like a fetus; they cannot be imagined as looking like anything at all and cannot be fancied as human.
On the other hand, opponents of stem cell research can detach themselves from fancy. They know, as a wise scientist once said, that if 100 first-rate biologists were gathered together, they would all agree that even an eight-cell embryo is living. They might not agree on the definition of life, but they would agree that if this embryo were to nest in a womb, it would normally grow into a baby ready for birth. Those who view the question from this perspective have formed an intellectual judgment that science itself has established. They also argue that research on embryonic stem cells should not be federally funded because it offends the consciences of many Americans.
President Bush made the right decision when he vetoed the stem cell bill. Nevertheless, as Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, remarked at the signing of the veto, he and other opponents of embryonic stem cell research are losing the argument with the American people. Where does that argument stand today? At this point in history, a few conclusions are reasonably certain.
By now, the question of funds for embryonic stem cell research is practically moot. This research is already amply supported by such private sources as university institutes and biotechnology companies, along with monies from some states. It is worth noting, however, that so far none of this research has produced those miraculous therapies that have been predicted. Speaking of these promises, the best that Douglas A. Melton, director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute could say not long ago was, “We haven’t learned anything that makes us think this won’t work.”
It is known, however, that research on adult stem cells has produced some therapeutic experiments that do work. For instance, the Sept. 21 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reported a study that found that adult stem cells from patients’ own bone marrow had improved those patients’ cardiac function after a heart attack. Research on these adult stem cells is morally unobjectionable, because they are derived without harm to the donor. The National Institutes of Health currently supports this adult stem cell research and take the position that government funding for it should be substantially increased.
The success of work with adult stem cells will not, however, satisfy those who think no boundaries should be imposed on scientists and their research. This was pointed out by Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, who is also a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. On the July 17 broadcast of the “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” Mr. George called the Senate debate about stem cells a sideshow. The real debate now, he said, is about the next step in embryonic stem cell research—a debate about the creation of cloned human embryos that are a match for a particular patient and will be destroyed once their stem cells have been harvested for regenerative medicine. A law that banned federal funding for this “fetal farming” would clearly represent a choice of life over death.