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Murdered to Order

Opponents of stem cell research see their worst fears realized in the Ukraine.

11:00 PM, Dec 27, 2006 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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In July of 2005, the Slate magazine science reporter William Saletan argued in a five-part series titled "Organ Factory: the Case for Harvesting Older Human Embryos" that given the current acceptance of embryo destruction there is no reason to limit it to the early embryo. He pointed to studies from around the world arguing that seven-week old embryos are what researchers really want. And Saletan made the case that they should have them: "Don't be scared. We don't have to grow a whole new you. . . . an embryo cloned from one of your cells would need just six or seven weeks to grow many of the tissues you need. We already condone harvesting of cells from cloned human embryos for the first two weeks. Why stop there?"

And in the startling conclusion to part five, Saletan made clear that nothing should stand in the way of science: "But if all you want is tissue, who cares? You can tell yourself what we already tell ourselves about unwanted in vitro embryos: They're doomed anyway. Patients' lives are at stake. We can't let personal morality get in the way of science. We can't wait."

The Princeton philosopher Robert P. George, arguing the other side of the issue, picked up on Saletan's article and noticed a frightening development right in his own backyard. Under the title "Fetal Attraction: What the Stem Cell Scientists Really Want" in the pages of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, George rang the alarm bell warning that embryonic stem cell research was leading to the macabre practice of "fetal farming." He noted that blastocyst-stage embryonic stem cells are therapeutically unusable because of their tendency to produce tumors when injected into subjects. Claims that they will cure people are pure hype. Nature herself, however, stabilizes stem cells in the normal gestational process, eliminating the tumor-formation problem by what appears to be an extraordinarily complex system of intercellular signaling; a complex system scientist were having trouble replicating.

George warned that this would lead some scientists to demand the right to create human clones and gestate them in female volunteers or artificial wombs to the late embryonic or even the fetal or infant stages before killing them to harvest non-tumor-forming stem cells:

"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."

That was last year in New Jersey. This year in Missouri a provision was passed that created a constitutional right to human embryo cloning--provided the cloned embryo isn't transferred into a woman's womb--while also creating a constitutional mandate to destroy human embryos. More startling, however, was the window intentionally left open for fetus farming. If the technology of artificial wombs is perfected, cloned embryos can be developed in artificial wombs and then harvested not only for stem cells, but for developed cells and even organs. This, it appears, is what the doctors in the Ukraine are after. What guarantee do we have that they aren't after the same thing here?

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.