The Magazine

The Politics of Bioethics

From the May 10, 2004 issue: Playing defense isn't enough.

May 10, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 33 • By ERIC COHEN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Just a few months earlier, researchers working with animals showed that it is possible to produce both eggs and sperm from embryonic stem cells, including eggs from male embryos and sperm from female embryos. This means that it might be possible, someday soon, to produce a human child with two male parents or two female parents--and even a human child whose mother, father, or both is a dead embryo. Still other researchers fused together male and female embryos to produce a genderless human hybrid. Chinese researchers have already produced chimeric clones using rabbit eggs and human DNA. And what now seems prosaic--the destruction of IVF embryos for their stem cells--is a growing practice, with a number of states (New Jersey, California) contemplating new public funding initiatives, and a number of universities (Harvard, Stanford) actively creating new embryo research institutes.

While this research has proceeded, the political debate on bioethics has stalled. President Bush's August 2001 decision established an important moral principle, but also left an ambiguous legacy. The moral principle is that society as a whole, using taxpayer money, will not endorse the destruction of human embryos for any purpose; and it will not create public incentives for embryo destruction in the future. Zealous critics have denounced the policy as the 21st-century equivalent of silencing Galileo--attacking the president directly for imposing his personal religious views on science, and often ignoring the fact that Congress, not the president, made the law that prohibits federal funding of embryo research. More sober critics have argued that because more stem cell lines have been produced since the president's decision, these new lines should also be eligible for funding. The "life and death decision," they argue, has once again already been made. But moving the date of eligibility would undermine the moral logic of the Bush policy. It would send the message that the date will keep moving, and that embryo destruction today will be publicly funded tomorrow.

But the Bush decision, while principled, is also a partial decision: It offers no practical proposal for limiting embryo research in the private sector, though it probably discourages some scientists from engaging in research that cannot get NIH funding. It does not confront the question of what to do about excess embryo creation in in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics during fertility treatment, or what to do about the roughly 400,000 embryos now frozen "in storage." (Only 3 percent of these frozen embryos, by the way, have been made available by their parents for research purposes.) Finally, the Bush decision gives the nation a stake in the success of embryonic stem cell research as a whole, and probably benefits (indirectly) those who destroy embryos with private funds by advancing the field.

In the end, neither side in the embryo debate is happy with the current policy: Embryo research opponents lament the ongoing destruction of embryos in the private sector; embryo research advocates resent the limits on funding. But both sides also fear that things could get worse than they are now--that is, funding limits could loosen (the conservative worry) or legal restrictions could tighten (the liberal worry). The difference, however, is that research supporters are on the offensive--lobbying Congress and the president to make the funding policy more liberal, and aggressively seeking funding in individual states. Embryo research opponents, by contrast, are on the defensive: trying to preserve the Bush policy, with little hope or expectation of banning embryo research in the private sector.

In the one area where conservatives have tried to set broader limits on biotechnology--human cloning--the political fight remains stalled. Since 2001, the cloning debate has been a battle between two competing bills: the Brownback bill and the Hatch-Feinstein bill. The Brownback bill would ban all human cloning, including the creation and destruction of cloned embryos for research. The Hatch-Feinstein bill would endorse the creation and use of cloned embryos for research, then mandate the destruction of all cloned embryos to prevent the production of cloned children. The Brownback bill is the best way to stop the creation of cloned children, by stopping this act at the very first step. And it would set an important precedent that we should not "create human life solely for research and destruction." The Hatch-Feinstein bill, by contrast, makes the American public an accomplice in this troubling practice, and it creates for the first time a class of human life--cloned embryos--that must by law be destroyed.