July 15, 2001
Scientists at a fertility clinic in Virginia have crossed a previously taboo line by creating and then immediately destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells for research purposes, and a small biotechnology company in Massachusetts may soon break another barrier by doing the same thing through controversial cloning procedures. All previous work in this field has used stem cells derived from surplus embryos that would have been discarded at fertility clinics. That work is controversial in itself, but there is something about the notion of scientists creating and destroying embryos solely for research purposes that arouses particularly intense opposition.
The new revelations have provoked angry criticism from religious conservatives who consider the work ghoulish and who cite it as yet another reason for President Bush to block federal funding of any research on stem cells derived from embryos, whether those embryos were created for fertility treatments or for laboratory use. Our own view is that even the latest experiments are justifiable given the potentially great medical advances that could result from such work. But whatever one thinks of the ethics of creating embryos solely for research, there is good reason to support work on surplus embryos at fertility clinics that would otherwise be destroyed without any medical or scientific gain whatsoever.
The eventual payoff from stem cell research could be enormous as these cells have the potential — if scientists ever learn how to apply the appropriate signals — to develop into virtually any kinds of cell needed by the human body. They could thus generate precisely the kind of cells needed to repair the damage in patients suffering from heart disease, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes and other ailments.
Even so, religious conservatives oppose using embryos as a source of the cells because that requires the destruction of what they deem a nascent form of life. Instead, they urge that stem cells be extracted from adults. But the consensus of scientists is that embryonic stem cells are more promising and that each type will have its uses. It would be a mistake to circumscribe the ability of scientists to study embryonic stem cells and learn to manipulate their evolution into repair cells.
The embryos used for deriving stem cells are taken at such an early stage — just a few days after the union of egg and sperm in a petri dish — that they are only a tiny clump of cells, no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. They have the potential, if implanted in a womb, to develop into a person. But at this primitive blastocyst stage, they have no identifiable organs or parts, no awareness, none of the attributes we think of as human. We suspect that most Americans would agree with Senator Orrin Hatch, a pro-life conservative, when he exclaimed that he could not equate "an embryo in a freezer" with "a child living in the womb, with moving toes and fingers and a beating heart."
What President Bush is now pondering is whether federal funds should be used to support research on stem cells derived from embryos that would otherwise be discarded at fertility clinics. Such research is already being conducted on a small scale at private clinics and companies. Religious conservatives, a key political constituency of the Bush administration, argue that the federal government should not give its imprimatur to work that requires destroying what they consider to be a developing human life. But the case for federal funding is strong. It would greatly speed the day when cures are found for some of the most devastating diseases afflicting millions of ailing Americans.