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May 25, 2005

What's wrong with the House's stem cell research bill

The Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed, by a convincing margin (238-194) and over the objections of its leadership, a bill that would partially undo President Bush's restrictive policy on stem cell research.  It is unlikely to become law, however.  The Bill will face significant hurdles (including a filibuster threat) in the Senate.  More importantly, Bush has already said he'll veto it, and the margin in the House is well short of the two-thirds needed to override.

But still, this is great news, right?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that it's great to see a significant number of House Republicans defying both their own wacky leadership and a Bush veto threat to pass a bill on an important public policy issue.  And yes, in the sense that it's great to see that many Republicans as well as Democrats understand the potential promise of embryonic stem cell research.

But no, in the sense that the House bill seems to me to suffer from a bit of the same fallacy that our own Governor's stem cell position suffers from.  The House bill would lift Bush's ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research only if the cell lines in question are derived from "surplus" embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics.  It does nothing to encourage American scientists to keep pace with, among others, the South Koreans who have recently announced impressive results through the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).

Why is this distinction so important?  I can see two reasons.  First, on the science: the great thing about SCNT is that, when successfully accomplished, it leads to cell lines that exactly match the DNA of the patient you are trying to treat.  That gives you the best chance of avoiding rejection and other incompatibility problems.  And that is what the South Korean researchers did.  In contrast, because a "surplus" embryo from an in vitro clinic is the result of a sperm cell fertilizing an egg cell, the DNA of that embryo is unique and does not match anyone.  A cell line derived from a "surplus" embryo might be useful for research, but my guess is that the more promising therapeutic possibilities will come from SCNT.  I am no scientist, but this just strikes me as common sense.

Second, on the moral and ethical issues: I've pounded away at Mitt Romney's "OK to use surplus embryos, but not to engage in SCNT" position on numerous occasions, so I don't need to restate the whole argument here.  Here's the short version: it doesn't make ANY sense to me.  A "surplus" embryo is a fertilized egg cell that, if implanted into a woman's uterus, has a good chance of developing into a living breathing human (as Bush's photo-op with children who were adopted as "surplus" embryos was designed to show).  And it was created with the intention of having a baby.  If the couple that created the embryo now does not want to use it, that does not change the nature of the embryo.  SCNT, in contrast, does not involve the fertilization of an egg cell.  It is a scientific trick whereby an egg cell whose nuclear material has been replaced is induced to divide, thereby creating genetic carbon copies of itself.  No ethical scientist undertakes this procedure with the intention of trying to create a human being, and it is not very likely that it would work even if it were tried. 

I can appreciate that certain religious or moral points of view would have a problem with either of these methods of undertaking embryonic stem cell research.  My point is that SCNT seems to me far less objectionable than the use of "surplus" embryos.  So the House bill, and Governor Romney's position, seem to me exactly backward - they are less likely to encourage the most promising avenues of scientific research, and they are less morally and ethically defensible, than a policy encouraging SCNT.

Posted by David at 10:41 AM in Massachusetts, National | Permalink


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You said it your self in the article.
" In contrast, because a "surplus" embryo from an in vitro clinic is the result of a sperm cell fertilizing an egg cell, the DNA of that embryo is unique and does not match anyone. "
The courts accept Unique DNA as the most irrefutable evidence of an individuals identity in criminal cases. If unique DNA proves a human beings identity in court then logicaly it has to prove that each "Embryo" is a unique human being.
That being true each embryo is therefore entitled to all of the rights granted any other human being under the Constitution,not the least of which is the right to Life.
Would you advocate killing those of us registered as organ donors to harvest our organs when we come up as a match to somone that is deemed more important than we are, or for medical research? Wheres the difference between killing humans when they are embyos or adults their dna proves that they are still individual human beings just at different ages.

Posted by: Bob Pogmore | May 25, 2005 12:03:34 PM

Stem Cell Issue is a MORAL ISSUE.
Without a strong stance regarding the sanctity of " Human Life " We must Never resort to Human Life in any form in support any scientific perspective, whatsoever...no matter what the positive gain. Everyone is watching the US stance within this delicate issue. Those Countries without morally based ethic...Respect For human Life, have no regard for the individual humanbeing. For The United States To Use Human life to save human Life, is to open the door to Human Cloning. This is Not A Religious Issue. The Issue Deals with A basic regard For The Sanctity of Human Life. The End.

Posted by: Sarah | May 25, 2005 12:14:17 PM

Bob: An embryo isn't a human yet -- that's the difference.

As for the "surplus" embryo discussion... what happens to them now? Are they kept on ice forever, or are they eventually destroyed somehow. If they are being destroyed anyway, why not use 'em for science? It appeals to the ideal of not being wasteful.

My point is that if the "surplus" embryos are being destroyed, perhaps that is the policy that folks with the Bush perspective should be aggresively seeking to remedy.

Posted by: stomv | May 25, 2005 12:21:02 PM

If unique DNA proves a human beings identity in court then logicaly it has to prove that each "Embryo" is a unique human being.

That isn't true. If we take your analogy completely, courts also allow fingerprinting as valid unique identifiers of humans. Therefore, human fingers, even if severed from a human, are to be given the same status as people, since they contain fingerprints.

I'm not for funding of stem cell research, just like i'm not for funding by the government of any sort of scientific of medical research, but I had to point out the flaw in your reasoning.

Posted by: Ed Giardina | May 25, 2005 12:24:16 PM

Bob: my point is precisely that "surplus" embryos do have a stronger claim to being unique human beings than do cells created via SCNT, so to that extent I agree with you (I think). As to whether "surplus" embryos are humans beings or not, I think we might differ there, but I agree with stomv that those who believe that surplus embryos are humans with the full rights available to humans ought to be much more worried about current practices at fertility clinics than about stem cell research.

Posted by: David | May 25, 2005 12:29:27 PM

This is Not A Religious Issue. The Issue Deals with A basic regard For The Sanctity of Human Life.

Sarah, respectfully, you are begging the question. Before we can argue about whether embryonic stem cell research implicates "the sanctity of human life," we have to decide what "human life" is. And there is no easy answer to that question - some find their answer in religious principles, others find it in their own moral and ethical precepts, others believe that science defines it in one way or another, but there is no general agreement on it. I do not believe in killing one human to save another. But I also do not believe that a cell created via SCNT is a human being. You may believe differently, but that is because you and I differ on how to decide that question.

Posted by: David | May 25, 2005 1:17:37 PM

I disagree with David's original post. Romney and HR810 make a valid distinction between surplus and SCNT (or clonal)blastocysts (which is a more accurate term for BOTH sources) - although I disagree with their policy recommendations.

SCNT blastocysts are more problematic than surplus ones because (1) they are created using cloning technology and - however much we'd like to trust all scientists - this opens the door to abuse, and (2) they are human blastocysts created for the purpose of being destroyed for research, and some moral frameworks may draw the line there.

Right now several policies (banning reproductive cloning, funding stem cell research) are stalemated over these issues. Castle-DeGette makes a big step towards breaking that statemate.

Posted by: Jesse | May 25, 2005 2:01:44 PM

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