Some of the questions underlying the abortion debate - such as when human life starts and how best to preserve its dignity - are about to get a fresh hearing in a new context.
The Bush administration and Congress are poised to address a brewing controversy over research involving cells extracted from human embryos.
Supporters of the research argue that the so-called stem cells, which are taken from embryos only a few days old that are created in fertilization clinics, could lead to therapies for diseases that today have no known medical cure. Detractors worry that medical science is encroaching too much on the sanctity of human life at its earliest stages.
This Thursday marks the deadline for stem-cell researchers to apply for federal funding from the National Institutes of Health. The White House is reviewing the rules to see if such funding should go forward.
The controversy is shaking up old alliances, formed in the abortion debate, and bringing new players to the table. In particular, drug companies fear a potentially huge industry will slip into foreign hands if the federal government doesn't fund the research. It also previews the difficult ethical and moral challenges that lie ahead as cloning and other genetic technologies become feasible for humans.
At the heart of the debate lie the cells themselves, called embryonic stem cells. As the precursor to other human cells, they possess the remarkable ability to grow into whatever kind of cell the body needs, such as heart tissue or a neuron. This feature makes them potentially valuable to researchers, who hope to use them to repair cell damage virtually anywhere in the body.
At Johns Hopkins University, for example, scientists have used cell clusters derived from embryonic stem cells to overcome some of the effects of a paralyzing disease. Researchers think stem cells might help the body heal itself, alleviating symptoms of, say, Parkinson's disease and certain types of diabetes.
Currently, only a handful of scientists are working in the field - but that number could change dramatically if federal funding were made available.
"Just think if you had hundreds of scientists working on this," says John Gearhart, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Johns Hopkins and one of the leaders in stem-cell research. With government money, "this work will go much more rapidly."
The problem with embryonic stem cells lies in where they come from. Typically, scientists harvest them from embryos left over at in-vitro fertilization clinics. (Couples have the legal right to have their embryos stored or discarded, and can opt to have discarded ones made available for research.)
Activists who believe life begins at conception find such acts morally repugnant. "It's indisputably killing," says Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee in Washington. "Living human beings should not be used for harmful research without their consent."
These groups want to ensure the federal government does not fund such procedures. Instead, they want researchers to use only adult stem cells - even if that choice slows down the research.
Others say the more relevant ethical questions center on whether discarded embryos suffer a loss of dignity during stem-cell extraction, and if society's view of life grows coarser as a result. There's a "tradeoff between medical advances and the coarsening that comes with the acceptance of destruction of early forms of human life," says Alta Charo, a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
But to many scientists, blocking federal funding is ethically problematic as well, because it could delay possible cures for diseases. "This will not adversely affect my own research," says James Fallon, a researcher at the University of California at Irvine working on adult stem cells. "But other critical work will be stopped dead in its tracks. This will not only impact stem-cell research per se, but also our basic understanding of how the body develops, functions, dysfunctions, and is repaired."
Last month, a number of research institutions and 80 US Nobel laureates signed a letter urging President Bush not to block federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Mr. Bush, who personally opposes the idea, has asked Tommy Thompson, Health and Human Services secretary, to review the federal guidelines allowing the
funding. Many critics say those guidelines, issued last August by the Clinton administration, circumvent a 1996 law that banned such funding.
The review puts Secretary Thompson in a difficult position. As governor of Wisconsin, he opposed abortion but praised a University of Wisconsin scientist who is one of the leaders of embryonic stem-cell research. Other staunch abortion foes, including Republican Sens. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Gordon Smith of Oregon, have also declined to support a blanket ban on such research.
There are competitive reasons why the United States might want to fund embryonic stem-cell research. Other countries, notably Britain, are pushing to fund research that could one day spawn a huge biomedical industry. "There will be a lot of intellectual property around this," predicts Dr. Gearhart.
By realigning the forces in the abortion debate and bringing corporate and competitive issues to the table, the stem-cell controversy hints at the ethical minefield that lies ahead. With cloning and other genetic research, scientists are pushing into realms that could redefine what it means to be human and live a dignified life.
"Every time that the stakes are raised, you'll find people rethinking decisions," says Professor Charo. "That's a sensible discussion to have."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor