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Perpetuating a Needless Stem-Cell War

Obama's decision is bad ethics, bad science, and bad politics.

1:00 PM, Mar 9, 2009 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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President Obama today fulfilled his campaign promise to lift federal-funding restrictions on research involving the destruction of human embryos. He couldn't have done so at a more inappropriate time, for just last week scientists made headlines again announcing yet another breakthrough in what is known as "induced pluripotent stem-cell" technology. Following up on the initial breakthrough in November 2007 that allowed scientists to produce the biological equivalent of embryonic stem cells without creating, using, or destroying any human embryos, scientists have continued to refine their methods. Last week's announcement was the latest in a long string of developments. If Obama truly wants to find honorable compromises that the entire nation can accept in good conscience and even endorse, he should be promoting these alternative sources.

During the ceremony this morning, Obama announced that by signing this executive order "we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research." Of course there never was a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. President Bush was, in fact, the first president in history to fund embryonic stem cell research. The compromise Bush reached, however, put restrictions in place that prevented the further destruction of human embryos. It is these restrictions protecting human life that Obama has lifted.

Claiming that Bush's compromise was "a false choice between sound science and moral values," Obama announced that "the two are not inconsistent." "As a person of faith," he continued, he believes that "we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering." Concretely, this means that "we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research--and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly." How the destruction of tiny human lives fits into this humanity and conscience is not so clear.

Obama continued, noting that his stem-cell decision was just the starting point for a larger reevaluation of the role scientists will play in his administration: "It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient--especially when it's inconvenient."

But critics of human embryo-destructive research have never been hostile to science. The dispute is not about whether stem-cell science should proceed; it is about how it will proceed. Will it go forward in a way that respects all human life? Or will it regard the taking of human life in its early stages as justified by the desire to advance biomedical knowledge and seek therapies? Listening to scientists who tell us what they want to do doesn't mean we should give them a blank check; we need to determine if what they're proposing, especially when it's inconvenient for unborn human life, is what they should be doing.

And this isn't just some obscure pro-life worry. In 2007, when the great breakthrough of induced pluripotent stem cell technology was announced, both of the scientists behind the new technique explained the moral concerns that drove their research. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka told the New York Times: "When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can't keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way." At the same time, Dr. James Thomson, the original discoverer of embryonic stem cells, told the Times: "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough. I thought long and hard about whether I would do it." He went on to add that because of this latest technique, "a decade from now, this will be just a funny historical footnote."

Yet this footnote becomes less funny as life-and-death decisions are made for political purposes despite the existence of sound scientific alternatives to human embryo-destructive research. After seven years and two campaigns of the Democrats attacking the Republicans over President Bush's stem-cell policy, Obama evidently thought he had to make good on his promise to promote and fund embryo-destructive research, even if it is now scientifically superfluous. And superfluous is exactly what the past year and a half of stem-cell breakthroughs have made it.

I described the November 2007 breakthrough in the pages of THE WEEKLY STANDARD as marking "The End of the Stem-Cell Wars"--though a better title might have been "What Should Be the End of the Stem-Cell Wars." Scientists had succeeded in transforming an ordinary skin cell into a stem cell with the properties of an embryonic stem cell by using viral vectors to reprogram the cell to a pluripotent state. But researchers were concerned that these viruses, which integrated themselves into the stem cell, might pose an obstacle to therapeutic use. Last September, a team of researchers discovered a way to use the viruses to reprogram the cells, but without being integrated. And last week, researchers published a paper showing that they can reprogram an adult cell into a pluripotent stem cell without using viruses at all. Instead, they simply insert a sequence of DNA (called "piggyBac") carrying four genes that reprogram the cell. Andras Nagy, who led the research behind this technique, explained that "after they do their job they can be removed seamlessly, with no trace left behind. The ability for seamless removal opens up a huge possibility."

Harvard's George Daley described the study as "very significant," adding that he thought it was "a major step forward in realizing the value of these cells for medical research." Robert Lanza, of the prominent Advanced Cell Technology, said it was "very exciting work. . . . we're only a hair's breadth away from the biggest prize in regenerative medicine--a way to create patient-specific cells that are safe enough to use clinically."

This, of course, points to the scientific advantages that induced pluripotent stem cells bring.

First, they're cheaper and easier to work with than cells produced by killing human embryos. Not surprisingly, hundreds of labs have made the switch from embryonic stem cells to induced pluripotent ones.

Second, and very importantly, induced pluripotent stem cells are patient specific. As anyone familiar with organ transplants knows, immune rejection is a major hurdle to any form of regenerative medicine. Induced pluripotent stem cells clear this hurdle because they can be created using the patient's own skin cells; thus they will have his exact DNA sequence and will not be prone to immune rejection. For embryonic stem cells to do the equivalent, they would have to be created from an embryo produced by human cloning. Clearly, then, Bush's critics were being disingenuous when they claimed to want only the IVF "spares"--embryos that "were going to die anyway." While those might have been the first cells needed for basic research, any therapeutic uses would require patient-specific cells, attainable only by cloning. That would open up ethical debates over human cloning and killing--and debates about the ethics and safety of encouraging (or paying) women to subject themselves to hormonal stimulation to produce eggs for use in the cloning process. Using induced pluripotent stem cells avoids all of these problems.

It is, therefore, critically important to note what Obama did not say this morning. He promised that he would make sure that "our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction." He went on to add that "it is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society." This is certainly correct. But in pledging only to prevent reproductive cloning, Obama intentionally left the door open for research cloning. The cloning procedure involved, of course, is exactly the same in reproductive and research cloning; the only difference is that in research cloning the developing human is killed before being allowed to be born. Given what we know about the necessity of cloning for the medicinal use of embryonic stem cells, Obama's implicit support for research cloning and killing is unconscionable.

All of that said, while human cloning has yet to be performed, let alone perfected, non-embryo-destructive techniques to produce patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cells are available now. Yet another advantage.

Obama's rhetoric this morning was notably toned-down. When speaking of Christopher Reeve, he expressed regret that Reeve was never able to walk again. He predicted that "if we pursue this research, maybe one day--maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children's lifetime--but maybe one day, others like him might." What happened to the promises from the Democratic Convention of 2004 that a personal repair kit was right around the corner? In fact, after a decade of research on embryonic stem cells (which, despite media spin, has remained legal even as federal funding was restricted), there are no clinically available treatments using embryonic stem cells. Only one study has been approved by the FDA for testing, and the tests have not begun. Meanwhile, after just 18 months of research on induced pluripotent stem cells, scientists are just a "hair's breadth" away.

Bad ethics and bad science, Obama's decision earlier this morning is bad politics, too. Obama ran on a platform of fulfilling George W. Bush's promise to be a uniter, not a divider--to be the president of the entire United States, and not just of special interests. He acknowledged this morning that "many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, [embryo-destructive] research." He said that he "understands their concerns" and that "we must respect their point of view." As such, he promised "that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted."

But by his actions today, Obama has shown himself to take unnecessarily divisive approaches to controversial questions. He has committed the nation--and all its taxpayers--to supporting unethical, lethal research. Beyond the objective wrong committed, this is likely to have political consequences: Given Obama's efforts to woo religious voters, this decision may come back to haunt him.

One has to wonder who's advising Obama on these issues, for even President Clinton's bioethics committee had concerns about embryo destruction:

In our judgment, the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research. But as we have noted, ES cells from embryos appear to be different in scientifically important ways from AS cells and also appear to offer greater promise of therapeutic breakthroughs. The claim that there are alternatives to using stem cells derived from embryos is not, at the present time, supported scientifically. We recognize, however, that this is a matter that must be revisited continually as science advances [emphasis added].

While at the time, because alternatives didn't exist, they considered the research morally justified, they explicitly stated that this would have to be reevaluated in light of subsequent scientific advancements. Obama is ignoring these advancements and pledging federal dollars on research that needlessly destroys the lives of tiny developing human beings. Who is the one playing politics with science?

Of course, the stem-cell debates have never been about science. As Joseph Bottum and I argued
in the November issue of First Things, the furor over stem cells was fueled by numerous factors: patients' desperation in the face of illness and their hope for cures; the belief that biology can now do anything; the reluctance of scientists to accept any limits (particularly moral limits) on their research; the impact of big money from biotech stocks, patents, and federal funding; the willingness of America's elite class to use every means possible to discredit religion in general; and the need to protect the unlimited abortion license by accepting no protections of unborn human life. The most recent technological breakthroughs, sadly, change none of these facts. But they should.

Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good.