National Review Online Editor Kathryn Lopez recently asked
Robert P. George, a member of the President's Council on
Bioethics, to talk a little about the future of stem-cell
research and some of the heated rhetoric surrounding the issue.
Robert P. George
In a recent
Wall Street Journal opinion piece (registration required),
Princeton's Robert P. George teamed up with Dr. Markus Grompe "a
professor of genetics at the Oregon Health and Science University,
director of the Oregon Stem Cell Center and a member of the
International Society for Stem Cell Research" to herald the promise of
an alternative to ethically challenged embryonic-stem-cell research.
NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez recently asked George, a member of the
President's Council on Bioethics, to talk a little about the future of
stem-cell research and some of the heated rhetoric surrounding the
National Review Online:Last week in the New York Times,
Mario Cuomo wrote "So far neither Mr. Bush nor religious believers
have convinced a majority of Americans that the use of embryonic stem
cells inevitably entails the murder of a human being. Most Americans,
vividly aware of the millions of tragic victims of Alzheimer's,
Parkinson's, cancer and spinal cord injuries, believe that embryonic
stem cell research may provide cures. They will demand that Congress act
to realize that potential."
You must have been fuming.
Robert P. George: One really does
wish that Governor Cuomo would defend his views with arguments. If he
really thinks that human embryos are something other than human beings
at the earliest stage of their natural development, he should state his
reasons for believing such a thing. He should explain to us the basis of
his judgment, if it is indeed his judgment, that every major text in the
field of human embryology is simply in error on the point. After all,
the question of whether a human embryo is or is not a whole living
member of the species Homo sapiens is not one to be resolved in the mind
of any conscientious citizen or morally serious policymaker by examining
public-opinion polling data.
At the same time, it should be noted that Cuomo doesn't even manage
to do justice to public-opinion polls on the question of embryo-killing.
For what it is worth, polls stating the question in an unbiased fashion
tend to show that a majority of Americans do not support the practice of
destroying human embryos for biomedical research, and certainly oppose
the creation of embryos by cloning for research so-called
"therapeutic cloning" or any other purpose.
NRO:Is he just ignoring reality ?
George:Yes. In dodging the moral argument against embryo killing, he
is ignoring the basic facts of human embryology and developmental
biology. There is no mystery about when the life of a new human
individual begins. It is not a matter of subjective opinion or private
religious belief. One finds the answer not by consulting one's viscera
or searching through the Bible or the Koran; one finds it, rather, in
the basic texts of the relevant scientific disciplines. Those texts are
clear. Although none of us was ever a sperm cell or an ovum, each of us
was, at an earlier stage of development, an embryo, just as each of us
was an adolescent, a child, an infant, and a fetus. Each of us, by
directing his own integral organic functioning, developed himself (sex
is determined from the beginning) from the embryonic, into and through
the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages, and into adulthood with
his unity and determinateness intact. One's identity as a human being
does not vary with or depend upon one's location, environment, age,
size, stage of development, or condition of dependency.
We cannot say with certainty that
embryonic cells will never prove therapeutically useful in
treating other diseases, but as a matter of sheer fact not a
single embryonic-stem-cell therapy is even in clinical trials.
Of course, science cannot by itself settle questions of value, or
dignity, or morality. And there are, to be sure, people such as my
colleague Peter Singer who understand the science, but who deny the
ethical proposition that human beings have inherent dignity and
equal rights. They are willing to license the killing of certain
innocent human beings (the very young, the severely retarded, the
gravely debilitated), distinguishing those whom they regard as "persons"
from those whom they believe are not, or are not yet, or are no longer
"persons." Hence, Singer's notorious advocacy not only of abortion but
of infanticide and euthanasia as well. But I would have thought that
Mario Cuomo would want to stand with those of us who affirm the inherent
and equal dignity of every member of the human family. Surely he would
wish to uphold against the Singers of the world Jefferson's
"self-evident" proposition that all human beings are created equal. But
that leaves him with only one option if he is to rationalize his support
for abortion, embryo-destructive research, and their public funding: He
must disregard scientific reality and pretend that basic embryological
facts remain shrouded in mystery.
There is another piece of reality that Cuomo is ignoring. He is
imagining or at least encouraging others to imagine that
embryo-destructive research holds the key to curing horrible diseases,
such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and cancer. The truth is that we do
not know when, or even whether, embryonic stem cells will prove
to be useful in treating any disease. Leading authorities on
Alzheimer's disease, including many scientists in the field who
personally favor embryonic-stem-cell research and its public funding,
say that Alzheimer's will almost certainly never be treated (much
less cured) by embryonic-stem-cell therapies. A recent story in the
Washington Post quoted a leading Alzheimer's researcher as saying
that the belief that embryonic stem cells will be used to treat
Alzheimer's is a "fairy tale."
We cannot say with certainty that embryonic cells will never prove
therapeutically useful in treating other diseases, but as a matter of
sheer fact not a single embryonic-stem-cell therapy is even in clinical
trials. No one knows how to prevent tumor formation and other problems
arising from the use of embryonic stem cells. No one knows whether these
problems will be solved or solved before other research strategies
render embryonic research obsolete. Like John Kerry, John Edwards, and
Ron Reagan, Cuomo is elevating the hopes of suffering people and their
families who are desperate for cures and eager to believe that if only
embryonic-stem-cell research were federally funded they or their loved
ones would be restored to health.
Indeed, Cuomo supposes that the American people are about to rise up
and demand that the Congress open the money faucet. He imagines that the
voting public will not tolerate politicians who stand their ground
against the funding of embryo-destructive research. But, again, the
former governor is disregarding reality. Kerry, Edwards, and company
made the issue of embryonic-stem-cell-research funding a central feature
of their campaign. They hammered President Bush on the issue at every
campaign stop and, via Ron Reagan, in prime time at their national
convention. They thought they could ride the issue to the White House.
NRO:Cuomo aside, is a silence starting to be broken about
adult-stem-cell research and other alternatives to embryonic-stem-cell
George:Yes, the word is getting out about actual therapeutic
breakthroughs using non-embryonic stem cells, such as cells harvested
from umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, fat, and other sources. There
are people suffering from a variety of diseases who have been helped and
even cured by adult-stem-cell therapies. Many such therapies are well
along in clinical trials. Word is also getting out about alternative
methods of obtaining pluripotent (i.e., embryonic-type) stem cells. Even
those of us who oppose embryo killing and reject the hype about possible
embryonic-stem-cell therapies recognize that research involving
pluripotent cells is desirable if the cells can be obtained without
killing or harming human embryos or violating any other ethical norm.
Even if they do not someday prove to be therapeutically useful,
pluripotent cells may nevertheless be used in basic science and the
construction of disease models. Recently, the President's Council on
Bioethics issued a white paper outlining several promising avenues for
obtaining these cells without violating the ethical norm against taking
innocent human life. I joined the overwhelming majority of my colleagues
on the President's Council, including many who do not share my ethical
objections to embryo killing, in endorsing further exploration and
research into some or all of these methods. There are some exciting
possibilities here, especially those involving epigenetically
reprogramming ordinary body cells to the pluripotent state.
NRO:What has been keeping the media from talking about these
George:Most people in the mainstream media favor embryonic-stem-cell
research and have no objection to killing human embryos to obtain the
cells. They are in the Cuomo camp. They view the opponents of embryo
killing as "religious conservatives" and even "fundamentalists" who are
trying to "impose their morality" on others and who are, in this case,
trying to block advances in biomedical science. They think that talking
about alternatives to embryo-killing (or successes with adult stem
cells) only serves the interests of their political opponents. So many
simply keep mum. There are, however, honorable exceptions. Neither Rick
Weiss of the Washington Post nor Gareth Cook of the Boston
Globe would appear on anybody's list of reporters secretly harboring
sympathy for the pro-life cause. Yet both have published important,
carefully researched stories telling the truth about possible
alternatives to embryo-destructive research.
NRO:In layman's terms, what is OAR and what is the big deal about
George:Oocyte assisted reprogramming (OAR) is among the most
exciting proposals for obtaining pluripotent stem cells without killing
or harming human embryos. OAR is a variation of a broader concept known
as "altered nuclear transfer." It combines basic cloning technology with
Oocyte assisted reprogramming (OAR) is
among the most exciting proposals for obtaining pluripotent stem
cells without killing or harming human embryos.
In cloning, the nucleus of a somatic cell (such as a skin cell) is
transferred to an egg cell whose nucleus has been removed. An electrical
stimulus is administered in a way that, if all goes as planned, triggers
the development of a new and distinct organism, an embryo, that is
virtually identical in its genetic constitution to the organism from
which the somatic cell was taken. In OAR, however, the somatic-cell
nucleus or the egg cytoplasm or both would first be altered before the
nucleus is transferred. The modifications would change the expression of
certain "master genes" transcription factors that control expression
of many other genes by switching them on or off. These genetic
alterations would permit the egg to reprogram the somatic-cell nucleus
directly to a pluripotent, but not a totipotent (i.e., embryonic) state.
The altered expression of the powerful control gene would ensure that
the characteristics of the newly produced cell are immediately different
from, and incompatible with, those of an embryo. For optimal
reprogramming, master genes known to control the pluripotency of
embryonic stem cells would be used, for example the transcription factor
known as "nanog." Thus, we would reasonably expect to obtain precisely
the type of stem cells desired by advocates of embryonic stem-cell
research, without ever creating or killing embryos. The cells used would
not be embryos and would at no point go through an embryonic stage.
Embryogenesis would never occur. (A technical description of OAR is
posted on the website of the Ethics and Public Policy Center
NRO:Is this in any way similar to
research? Is that something science should also be pursuing with
William Hurlbut of Stanford University and the President's Council on
Bioethics has been the leading voice urging scientists and policy makers
to explore altered nuclear transfer as a possible method of obtaining
pluripotent stem cells in an ethically unimpeachable manner. OAR
represents a variation of Dr. Hurlbut's basic proposal. It emerged from
discussions involving Dr. Markus Grompe of the Oregon Health and Science
University, Dr. Maureen Condic of the University of Utah, and others. It
represents an important step forward because it does not involve the
production of non-embryonic entities from which stem cells are
harvested; rather, it employs techniques of epigenetic reprogramming of
somatic cells to produce stem cells directly. Previously discussed
versions of altered nuclear transfer left some pro-life advocates with
concerns about whether we could really know whether altered nuclear
transfer was producing truly non-embryonic entities as opposed to
damaged or defective human embryos or human embryos pre-programmed for
an early death (because, for example, they could not implant). OAR
relieves that concern. Still, I and others advocating exploration of OAR
want to begin with research using animal cells and proceed to the use of
human cells only after OAR is proven to be technically feasible and
ethically beyond reproach. We believe that this can be accomplished
quickly and at modest cost. I certainly hope that policymakers will back
NRO:When you advocate
"creative science" as you did in the headline of your recent Wall
Street Journal can't that get dangerous? I mean, we don't have a
ban on a lot of stuff, especially when it comes to private research.
George:Science is a wonderful enterprise. It has served the cause of
humanity in myriad ways. It has improved the average length and quality
of our lives, and will continue to do so. Like countless others today,
I'm a cancer survivor. Science made my survival possible. I can't begin
to tell you how grateful I am for that. Yet, every sober person
recognizes that great harm can also be done in the name of science and
even in the cause of science. As in every other domain of life, in the
sciences people can be tempted to do things that are morally wrong for
the sake of what advocates of the wrongdoing will present as a "greater
good." That kind of utilitarian thinking should always be resisted. Good
ends do not justify bad means. The fact that a particular practice or
strategy promises to advance scientific knowledge or even lead to cures
for dreaded diseases cannot in itself justify otherwise unethical
conduct. Even science is subject to moral norms. These norms including
above all the norm against killing innocent human beings at any stage or
in any condition place rational limits on what science may
legitimately do. Killing, even in the cause of healing, compromises the
moral foundations of biomedical sciences and cannot be justified.
NRO:Where would you specifically like to see attention focused?
On one type of research in particular or spread out a bit?
George:Various areas of adult-stem-cell research are clearly promising. As
I mentioned earlier, some have produced actual therapeutic results
cord-blood-stem-cell-research bill recently passed in the House of
Representatives is a good thing, and I hope that the Senate will now
pass it and send it along to the president for his signature. I'm
hopeful about the research being done by a team at Griffiths University
in Australia using stem cells obtained from nasal mucosa. In addition,
I'm very interested in Dr. Catherine Verfaille's research on multipotent
adult progenitor cells obtained from bone marrow and in Dr. Yuri
Verlinski's research using embryonic stem cells derived from existing
stem-cell lines approved for research under President Bush's funding
policy to reprogram somatic cells to the pluripotent state. As I've
already mentioned, I certainly want to see research into OAR and similar
epigenetic reprogramming strategies generously funded. But I'm
optimistic about other possibilities, too.
I would urge people who are interested in this general question to
look at the White Paper issued by the President's Council on Bioethics
and the Council's Report on Monitoring Stem Cell Research. Both are
available online at
NRO:Does the federal government need to finance this OAR or
other research? What are the rules you'd advocate for private research?
George:Because of its proven therapeutic promise, a great deal of
adult-stem-cell research is being funded by private investment. That's
great. But, as a practical matter, in the system we have developed over
the past several decades, government funding particularly federal
funding plays a major role. That's reality. So I would like to see NIH
funding for OAR. The initial round of funding to test the method would,
as I said earlier, involve only modest amounts of money. If everything
checks out, a bigger investment would be required, but it would be an
investment we should be happy to make.
NRO:Most people's eyes glaze over when the topic of stem-cell
research comes up. Are there just a few basic fundamentals people can
grab onto that will serve them well in the midst of spin and worse?
George:Don't trust claims about magic cures.
NRO:You don't seem as anti-science
as I'm told you (and I) are what's that about?
The claim that people like you and me (and President Bush and Leon Kass
and Charles Krauthammer) are anti-science is all about politics. It is
so manifestly silly, though, that it can be safely ignored.
Kathryn Jean Lopez. "Scientific Breakthroughs." National Review
(June 29, 2005).
This article is reprinted with permission from National Review.
To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount
Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.