The Magazine

Keeping Up with the Joneses

A controversial Virginia clinic injects stem cells into the governor's race.

Jul 30, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 43 • By ERIC COHEN
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THERE HAVE BEEN TWO PROMINENT RESPONSES to the news that the Jones Institute in Virginia is creating human embryos simply to harvest their stem cells: concern and outrage.

Mark Warner, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, is concerned. Asked in the governor’s debate last week if he believes Virginia should ban all in-state research on embryonic stem cells, he replied: "In terms of banning all such research, no. I saw the report from the Jones Institute this week, and it troubled me that they’re creating stem cells there. And I’ve asked for a briefing. I think we need to hear this issue out before we rush to judgment."

Mark Earley, the Republican candidate, is outraged. "You need to be more than troubled, Mark,if there is a place in Virginia that on its own, basically without any public discussion, began to create human embryos for the sole purpose of experimentation and then destruction."

Neither Earley nor Warner have made embryonic stem cells a central issue in the campaign—the subject being too new, too divisive, and too misunderstood by the public. But the stem cell tide may overtake them.

The Jones Institute is part of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, a private college in Norfolk, which became famous in 1981 when Drs. Howard and Georgeanna Jones produced (if that’s the word) the first "test tube baby" in the United States. The institute itself was created in 1983 and has been on the cutting edge of reproductive medicine ever since, including the development and use of what researchers call "pre-implantation genetic diagnosis." In layman’s terms, that means creating embryos, checking to see which ones are healthy and which sick, and discarding the sick ones.

The revelation that the institute creates embryos for the "sole purpose of research and destruction" followed a July 2001 article, written by researchers from the Jones Institute, in Fertility and Sterility magazine. But according to Jane Gardner, the Jones Institute’s spokeswoman, "this is nothing new." As the article explains, "In July of 1997, the Ethics Committee of the Jones Institute met to discuss research on human embryos where transfer back to the uterus was not intended." This committee "agreed that the creation of embryos for research purposes was justifiable and that it was our duty to provide humankind with the best understanding of early human development."

When I asked Gardner when the institute began creating embryos for research, she said, "I don’t know exactly." "This is not a new story," she said again. "The local paper did an article on this in 1998."

Indeed, on November 14, 1998, the Virginian-Pilot did do an article. In it, the head of the embryonic stem cell project, Gary Hodgen, described the source of embryos as follows: "These are not people coming in because they were infertile. These research donors understand that their gametes (eggs and sperm)...are not going to result in the birth of a child." The fact that the Fertility and Sterility article—which was presented in earlier form at a conference in October 2000—happened to come out at the very height of the national fight over embryonic stem cells is, if one can believe it, mere chance.

In response to these latest reports, Governor Jim Gilmore has launched an investigation to make sure that no state money is being used for this research. (Eastern Virginia Medical College gets $14.1 million a year from the state for indigent care, tuition assistance, and medical training.) The Jones Institute has said repeatedly that all funding for the project is private, and hence legal in Virginia.

Which brings us to Mark Earley and the governor’s race. If one were to create a pro-life all-star team from among high-level public officials around the country, Mark Earley would surely be on it. During each of his 10 years in the Virginia state senate, he gave an elegant speech on abortion and human rights to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. With mixed success, he led fights in Virginia to ban partial-birth abortion and to require parental notification for minors seeking abortions. "Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life," Earley said a few years ago, "this is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time, and we’re doing people a disservice by not talking about it. If we keep this issue pushed down, out of sight, it’s going to explode."