The Magazine

Fetal Attraction

What the stem cell scientists really want.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By ROBERT P. GEORGE
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If we do not put into place a legislative ban on fetus farming, public opposition to the practice could erode. People now find it revolting. But what will happen to public sentiment if the research is permitted to go forward and in fact generates treatments for some dreadful diseases or afflictions? I suspect that those in the biotech industry who do look forward to fetus farming are betting that moral opposition will collapse when the realistic prospect of cures is placed before the public.

The ideal legislation to protect human life and preserve public moral sensibilities would ban all production of human embryos for research in which they are destroyed. Unfortunately, Congress is not prepared to pass such legislation. Indeed, a bill passed by the House of Representatives to ban the production of human embryos, for any purpose, by cloning has been stymied in the Senate. (In this one instance, many American liberals decline to follow the lead of Europe--where many jurisdictions ban all human cloning, including the creation of embryos by cloning for biomedical research--or of the United Nations General Assembly, which has called for a complete cloning ban.) So what can be done?

One possibility is to make a pre-emptive strike against fetus farming by banning the initiation of any pregnancy (whether in a human uterus or artificial womb) for purposes other than the live birth of a child. This has been recommended by the President's Council on Bioethics. Another possible approach would be to add to the safeguards already in the U.S. Code on fetal tissue, stating that it is unlawful for anyone to use, or engage in interstate commerce in, such tissue when the person knows that the pregnancy was initiated in order to produce this tissue. An effective strategy would eliminate what would otherwise almost certainly emerge as a powerful incentive for the production of thousands of embryos that would be destroyed in perfecting and practicing cloning and fetal farming.

My suspicions and sense of urgency have been heightened by the fact that my home state of New Jersey has passed a bill that specifically authorizes and encourages human cloning for, among other purposes, the harvesting of "cadaveric fetal tissue." A "cadaver," of course, is a dead body. The bodies in question are those of fetuses created by cloning specifically to be gestated and killed as sources of tissues and organs. What the bill envisages and promotes, in other words, is fetus farming. The biotechnology industry put an enormous amount of money into pushing this bill through the New Jersey legislature and is now funding support for similar bills in states around the country.

So we find ourselves at a critical juncture. On the one hand, techniques for obtaining pluripotent stem cells without destroying embros will, it appears, soon eliminate any plausible argument for killing pre-implantation embryos. This is great news. On the other hand, these developments have, if I am correct, smoked out the true objectives of at least some who have been leading the charge for embryonic stem cell research. Things cannot remain as they are. The battle over embryonic stem cell research will determine whether we as a people move in the direction of restoring our sanctity of life ethic, or go in precisely the opposite direction. Either we will protect embryonic human life more fully than we do now, or we will begin creating human beings precisely as "organ factories." Those of us on the pro-life side must take the measure of the problem quickly so that we can develop and begin implementing a strategy that takes the nation in the honorable direction.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. He is a member of the President's Council on Bioethics.