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Michael J. Fox isn't telling the whole truth about stem cells in those ads.

6:54 PM, Oct 25, 2006 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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MICHAEL J. FOX is making a splash on television sets across Missouri, appearing in a stem cell commercial attacking Senator Jim Talent during Game 1 of the World Series. According to Fox, "Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope." Of course Senator Talent has been a consistent supporter of increased funding for stem cell research that doesn't involve the destruction of human embryos and has only sought to criminalize human cloning, but one needn't let the facts get in the way. (And it is worth mention that Missouri has a bill on the State ballot that would allow the cloning of human beings and then require their destruction prior to gestation.)

Fox has also just released a similar ad attacking Michael Steele in his race for the vacant Senate seat in Maryland. The reality, however, is that the only person in that race to have voted against stem cell research is Steele's opponent, Ben Cardin.

In four other states, ads are attacking congressional Republicans who voted against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The ads, paid for by the Democratic group Majority Action, attack Representatives Chris Chocola, Thelma Drake, Don Sherwood, and James Walsh. They all follow the same format: three healthy citizens tell of impending medical doom and how only embryonic stem cell research will save them. They conclude with these startling words: "Stem cell research could save lives, maybe yours or your family's, someone you love. Only Congressman Walsh said no. How come he thinks he gets to decide who lives and who dies; who's he?" (Apparently the irony of those who favor embryo-destruction accusing others of deciding "who lives and who dies" was lost on the ad's producers.)

These ads are repulsive. They play on the hopes and fears of million of Americans who are suffering from debilitating diseases, are caring for loved ones, and yearn for something, anything, to hold onto. They manipulate the public's emotions in the worst imaginable ways, promising them cures that are, in fact, quite uncertain, and pressuring them to forgo their own ethical convictions.

When emotions have subsided and right reasoning returns, one readily grasps three solid reasons to reject appeals for governmental funding of current methods of embryonic stem cell research: First, current methods are unethical as they destroy human beings in the embryonic stage of development. Second, embryonic stem cell research--contrary to all the hype claiming otherwise--doesn't show any signs of success in the near term, while adult stem cell research is curing diseases now. And third, methods of embryonic stem cell research may soon be available that will not require any human embryo destruction. That is, embryo destruction isn't only unethical: it's likely unnecessary.

The principled objection to current methods of embryonic stem cell research is that they all require the destruction of human embryos. Human embryos, as a matter of scientific fact, are human beings at a very early stage of development. For one to deny this basic biological truth isn't simply to be wrong, but to be unreasonable. The science is clear. While sperm and egg are both genetically and functionally parts of the adult parents, when a sperm fertilizes an egg and the respective pronuclei fuse; a genetically and functionally new, distinct, and unique human organism comes into existence. This embryonic human being possesses all of the internal resources necessary to guide him through further stages of development. The term embryo is a way of classifying the early human being, just as the terms fetus, newborn, infant, child, adolescent, adult, and octogenarian all refer to human beings at other stages. And even if the embryo is brought into existence by a process of cloning (for the unspoken reality of embryonic stem cell research is the necessity of cloning human embryos from the patient in order to have a genetic match and avoid auto-immune rejection), it is still the same exact biological organism as an embryo created by fertilization (if it weren't, the cloning procedure wouldn't be considered successful).

Those who are willing to accept these biological realities argue that the direct and intentional killing of human embryos isn't unethical because human embryos lack the requisite dignity to have a right to life. This argument, however, is doomed to fail. The argument typically runs that since human embryos aren't self-aware and can't think or even feel pleasure or pain, they don't have a personal life that would merit protection. Animal life alone isn't enough to warrant moral status; one needs higher mental personal life. But, if simply being a member of the human species is not enough to merit full and equal moral status, one will be hard pressed to explain why newborn babies posses a right to life that other (non-human) animals do not. Newborn babies do not exhibit any higher mental life than other animals. That is, a newborn human baby behaves in ways solely "animal" and not "personal." In fact, it isn't until at least age two that human babies begin to display any outward signs of a personal life. So, for someone to draw a moral line any place prior to age two would be arbitrary, as the frequent indicators all fail: why does the complete formation of a brain count, but not the incipient formation, for example? Why does incipient formation count, but not the formation of the precursor of the brain? Why does the precursor count, but not the precursor to the precursor, all the way back to the one-celled zygote that each of us began life as?

The reason we treat the one-celled human zygote as the subject of profound worth and dignity is because it does possess the radical (root) capacity for higher mental functions, even if that basic ability is unexercised and incipient. The human embryo, unlike the chimp embryo or the dog embryo or any other embryo or cellular structure, is unique in possessing the internal information and active disposition to develop himself into an animal with linguistic-intellectual powers ("personal" life). In other words, human beings possess rational capacities in virtue of the type of animal they are. A human being, as opposed to any other animal, is the type of being which has the potential for higher mental acts and a personal life, even though at various times those abilities may not be apparent for various reasons--for example, because one is asleep, ignorant, young, sick, or old. But none of these physical or mental attributes--consciousness, youth, ignorance, health, or age--can alter the intrinsic dignity of an individual human.

Besides the moral objection to embryo-destructive stem cell research, there are other reasons to be appalled by these recent ads, for there is good reason to be skeptical about the prospects of technological success for embryonic stem cell research. When an embryonic stem cell is created from a cell of the early embryo, that cell--left in the embryo of which it was a part--would have produced many different tissue types as the cells descended from it progressed through stages of higher specialization. That is, cells in the early embryo are precursors to entire biological systems, and not merely particular tissue types. And scientists are having significant difficulty forcing them to behave in other ways. When scientists try to manipulate them into embryonic stem cells (ESC), they tend to cause potentially dangerous tumors.

Dr. James Sherley, associate professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explained this just a few weeks ago: "When you put them [ESC] in an environment where they can grow and develop, they make lots of different kind of tissues. This tumor formation property is an inherent feature of the cells. And all you have to do is simply inject them into an animal tissue--this happens at very high efficiency." These same conclusions were echoed just this week in a report in the journal Nature Medicine. The Washington Post summarized the conclusion aptly: "Injecting human embryonic stem cells into the brains of Parkinson's disease patients may cause tumors to form, U.S. researchers reported on Sunday." (Of course, Parkinson's disease is precisely what Michael J. Fox is suffering from and claiming embryonic stem cells will cure.) Currently, there are no solutions to this problem on the horizon. As Sherley put it: "And although some might say we can solve the tumor problem down the road, that's equivalent to saying we can solve the cancer problem, and we may, but that's a long time coming."

If you doubt this is the case, one need only look to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)--the multi-billion dollar institute dedicated to embryonic stem-cell research and paid for by California tax-payers--and their recent proposed strategic report. The report states: "it is unlikely that CIRM will be able to fully develop stem cell therapy for routine clinical use during the ten years of the plan. Within that time span, however, we will be able to advance therapies for several diseases to early stage clinical trials, and to have therapies for other diseases in the pipeline." For the next ten years, the best they can promise is "early stage clinical trials" and therapies "in the pipeline." The Mercury News reports that the Institute's president, Zach Hall, "predicted it might take 15 years before the institute's research results in a medical product." It is probably for these reasons that private investors have been so reluctant to invest in embryonic stem cell research, thus creating the greater need for governmental funding. If embryonic stem cell research really could deliver all that it promised, one has to wonder why there isn't a mad rush to invest now.

Meanwhile, adult stem cell therapies are healing patients now--despite the fact that they receive only a fraction of the funding. Professor Sherley argues that adult stem cells present greater promise for medicinal cures because they are already specialized into the tissue type needed, and--because they are harvested directly from the patient in need of therapy--they have the same genotype and thus avoid the risk of immune rejection (without the need for cloning or embryo-destruction). As Sherley put it: "If you have a problem with your liver, you need a liver stem cell, you don't need an embryonic stem cell." That is, while the best-case estimates put embryonic stem cell therapies at least 15 years away (if they ever arrive), adult stem cell therapies are here now. And they present none of the ethical dilemmas of embryonic stem cells. This is the research that should receive generous government funding.

Lastly, even if one is convinced that embryonic stem cell research is the best hope, one need not embrace human embryo destruction. If we are willing to wait just a little while longer, it appears that it may soon be possible to directly create embryonic-type (pluripotent) stem cells without creating, using, or destroying human embryos. Science itself may yet resolve this ethical impasse. There are currently two proposals on the table to accomplish just this. The first procedure, proposed by William Hurlbut, professor of Neurological Science at Stanford, is known as Altered Nuclear Transfer Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (ANT-OAR). Garnering broad support both from the scientific community (from heavyweight stem cell researchers like Markus Grompe, director of the Oregon Stem Cell Center and a member of the board of the International Society for Stem Cell Research) and from the pro-life and Catholic communities, many see it as the best path (in addition to the highly successful adult stem cell therapies) for moving forward.

The second proposal relies upon dedifferentiation (reprogramming) of an adult somatic cell back to a state of pluripotency. As the human being matures, his cells differentiate as they become highly specialized tissue types. Scientists are now working to dedifferentiate these adult cells and return them to a state prior to specialization. This procedure is much like ANT-OAR, but seeks to reprogram a somatic cell without any nuclear transfer and thus without need for any ova. Further research into both of these procedures should be met with broad support.

It is unfortunate that our highly politicized culture has created an atmosphere where honest discussion of the prospects and ethics of various methods of stem cell research is impossible and these political ads have brought that discourse to a new low. For not only do they play on the hopes and fears of millions of suffering Americans, but they provide them with false information while attacking those who support ethical research that shows great promise.

Ryan T. Anderson is a Junior Fellow at First Things. He is also the Assistant Director of the Program on Bioethics and Human Dignity at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ.