JOHN KERRY'S recent assertions about stem cell research are so obviously untrue and so easily refuted that he must on some level actually believe them--as only an ideologue can. He claims repeatedly that President Bush has "enacted a far-reaching ban on stem cell research"; in fact, the Bush administration provided over $200 million for stem cell research last year, including $25 million for embryonic stem cell research. He claims that stem cells will one day cure Alzheimer's disease, an ailment that uniquely terrifies the baby-boom generation. But leading scientists, including enthusiastic supporters of stem cell research, have made it clear that stem cells will not help treat Alzheimer's. Kerry claims that stem cell cures are "at our fingertips" and that "help is on the way," when in fact there has not been a single human trial of an embryonic stem cell therapy.
Unlike the war in Iraq, where Kerry maneuvers to play both sides, stem cells are an issue where he brooks no ambiguity. He is for progress; President Bush is against it. He will end suffering; President Bush will leave the sick to "look to the future with fear." As William Saletan noted in a recent piece in Slate, Kerry has made biomedical advance a religion, and stem cells are his gospel. Understanding how this religion works--why it inspires so much anti-Bush ire and pro-Kerry enthusiasm, why it appeals to an aging and anxious population, and where it would lead America if it became our national faith--should be a priority as we enter the final season of the campaign.
The issue of stem cells is scientifically and ethically complex. Stem cells are undifferentiated and self-replicating cells with the potential to become the differentiated cells that make up the various tissues in the human body. Laboratories acquire them from many sources: bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, aborted fetuses, embryos, cloned embryos. Stem cells harvested from adults for purposes of medical research are ethically unproblematic; research on such cells garners near-universal support and receives over $180 million per year in funding from the National Institutes of Health. Embryonic stem cells, harvested from human embryos which are destroyed in the process, are fraught with ethical peril--and that is the reason we are having a far-reaching debate.
Most scientists believe that embryonic stem cells hold the greatest medical promise. Just as a tiny embryo can develop into a baby, with all its exquisitely specialized organs and parts, so embryonic stem cells can become virtually any type of human cell, with a facility seemingly greater than adult stem cells. But embryonic stem cell research is in its earliest stages, and no one knows whether these powerful cells can be directed in ways that are therapeutically useful. Moreover, it is hard to say whether the scientific establishment, in its political quest to secure more funding and stave off regulation, is overstating the promise of embryonic stem cells and understating the promise of non-embryonic stem cells. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the scientific potential of embryo research, or the large stake the scientific community now has in its success.
Nor can one deny the ethical problem this research poses. When one speaks with leading embryonic stem cell researchers, it is disarming to discover that the destruction of human embryos is already normal. An embryo is just a "clump of cells," the scientists say, as "small as the period at the end of this sentence." But if embryos were just clumps of cells, scientists would not want them so badly. The unique biological power of an embryo is inseparable from the kind of organism it is: an integrated, developing, genetically whole human creature in the earliest days of life. Three decades ago, scientists gained the power to initiate life in the laboratory; now they destroy it routinely, without fear and trembling.
The embryos needed for embryonic stem cell research can come from three sources: (1) They can be produced by in vitro fertilization (the union of egg and sperm in the laboratory) performed on behalf of infertile couples, who often produce more embryos than they actually implant to have children. (2) They can be produced by in vitro fertilization solely for the purposes of research. Or (3) they can be cloned--that is, produced using "somatic cell nuclear transfer," in which a person's DNA is inserted into an enucleated human egg. This is the technique that produced Dolly the sheep, and it is the first step on the way to reproductive human cloning.
For a while, proponents of embryo research were willing to draw certain ethical lines and respect certain ethical limits. For example, when NIH proposed funding for the creation of embryos solely for research in 1994, the Clinton administration (which supported embryo research) rejected the proposal as too radical. And when President Bush deliberated about federal funding of stem cell research in 2001, stem cell advocates called for funding within limits: They argued that thousands of embryos were already frozen in storage, and that funding research on those embryos imposed no extra moral cost.
Today, the debate has moved on. Leading proponents of embryo research are more radical--demanding more public funding (without which they say research is "banned"), rejecting past limits, and promising the moon. Kerry epitomizes this radicalization of the stem cell movement. At Kerry's convention, Ron Reagan lauded "personal biological repair kits" derived from cloned embryos, and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, endorsed "therapeutic cloning."
So it seems Democrats are now poised to cross yet another ethical and political boundary: federal funding for the creation, study, and destruction of cloned human embryos. After all, if cloned embryos are necessary to provide stem cells tailor-made for the individual, and if stem cell research can succeed only with federal funding, then the day has come for a national project of cloned embryo research. The ideology of stem cells has made the Democrats the party of cloning. And like all true believers, they believe inconvenient facts can be ignored and that history is on their side.
"The medical discoveries that come from stem cells are crucial next steps in humanity's uphill climb," John Kerry declared this summer in a radio address. "The tide of history is with us," Ron Reagan intoned at the convention. "We have a chance to take a giant stride forward for the good of all humanity. We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology." Indeed, the stem cell issue has a visceral appeal to liberals, who construe it as a referendum on Bush's backward-looking religiosity and a sign of their own compassionate enlightenment. If only they can sweep aside misguided leaders who mistakenly see a moral problem in embryo research, the stem cell ideology can win over a generation of aging baby-boomers--who shudder at their own mortality and count medical progress among the highest goods. Paul Ramsey, the late bioethicist, was more sensible, believing that "the moral history of mankind is more important than its medical history." Usually the two move forward together--but not always.
If Kerry wins, the stem cell debate will be over, at least politically. He will reverse the three-year-old Bush policy of limiting federal funding to certain existing embryonic stem cell lines, and he will work to overturn the eight-year-old Dickey Amendment prohibiting federal funding for any research that directly involves the destruction of human embryos. He will begin a national project of embryo creation and destruction, enshrining it in American national policy.
And the debate about human cloning may also be over. As recently as July, John Kerry co-sponsored a bill that would allow the creation of embryos by cloning for research so long as they are destroyed after 14 days. Thus, in the name of curing disease, he would have us perfect the technology necessary to clone children. And if recent history is any guide, the taboo against cloning to produce children will erode, as the left defends it as just another reproductive choice. Even more broadly, the possibility of banning a whole range of radical new types of human procreation--producing children with genes from two men or two women, say, or producing children whose parents are dead fetuses--may disappear.
Perhaps this is the direction America is heading already--toward the normalization of the radical in biotechnology, and toward the loss of all qualms about using human embryos as research materials. Or perhaps, years from now, the embryo destruction project will be another embarrassing wart on American history--a moral error, corrected by those who follow us. But it is a distraction to look too far into the future, with either excessive despair or excessive optimism. Today's election is what matters now, and John Kerry has given America a clear choice: the party of cloning or the party of moral limits.
Eric Cohen is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of the New Atlantis.