When it comes to human embryonic stem cell research, we're stuck in the freezer. Although public opinion polls consistently show that most Americans support this emerging branch of science that could revolutionize the treatment of diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and a host of other degenerative diseases, President Bush continues to place severe restrictions on the human stem cell lines that federally funded researchers can investigate.
Back in 2001, the president's executive order was criticized as largely inspired by the Pro-Life movement's objection to developing stem cell lines from intact embryos, currently the most practical means of doing so. But the result -- 4 years later -- is that stem cell research is caught in the vortex of ideologic, rhetorical brawls between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice activists which characterize much of today's political discourse.
Such controversy recalls Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, who argued strenuously that life begins at birth. His contemporary, the physician Hippocrates, believed that life begins at conception. Plato's view by far the predominant one of his time and place took hold partly because the philosopher practiced polemics far better than the physician. As Plato observed, "The partisan when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of a question but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions." In today's parlance, the winner of a political debate is usually the one who can best "spin" it to appeal to the public.
One serious hurdle confronting embryonic stem cell research proponents is the injection of the word "cloning" into the debate. When hearing this word, many people conjure up horrific images of the mass production of human beings for various nefarious purposes and scary, Frankenstein-like scenarios of science run amok.
Scientists work hard to differentiate between "reproductive cloning," which can involve making virtual copies of ourselves (or other animals) and "therapeutic cloning," the term currently used to describe cloning techniques used to develop stem cell lines for ameliorating disease. Sadly, confusion reigns despite their efforts.
Many experts suggest avoiding this confusion by referring to "therapeutic cloning" with the more accurate term "therapeutic regeneration." Ask the public about treating serious illness with "therapeutic regeneration" and the overwhelming majority would give you a green light. If you call it cloning, you will likely have a different answer from many of the people queried.
We need to distinguish between the unethical application of cloning technology to make virtual copies of ourselves (reproductive cloning) and therapeutic regeneration. In the petri dish, the same techniques are used to reproduce a few cells, but otherwise the differences are gargantuan. For therapeutic regeneration, these cells can be derived from the ample numbers of embryos that will otherwise be discarded by in-vitro fertilization clinics across the nation. These are the embryos that could be used to develop stem cell therapies to treat age-old incurable maladies. When these distinctions are clearly understood, even many Pro-Life advocates are convinced that rather than discarding these embryos, they can and should be put to life-enhancing purposes.
Several state legislatures have appropriately adopted laws that prohibit the "reproductive cloning" of humans. Although a few states (California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Ohio) have authorized therapeutic regeneration research using stem cells, many more states (including Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Michigan) have passed severely restrictive statutes that prohibit "cloning" research, without making the critically important distinction between reproductive and therapeutic purposes. As a result, research that uses embryos to establish stem cell lines is prohibited, even though these embryos are obtained with the express consent of the donors, and if not used are otherwise destined to be discarded.
Eventually, scientists may prevail over language spinners, as they develop what The New England Journal of Medicine recently called "politically correct human embryonic stem cells." With this process, stem cell lines are regenerated either from 1 cell of a dividing embryo that leaves the remaining embryo to develop normally or from genetically engineered "embryos" incapable of normal development.
But for the foreseeable future, valuable time that should be spent on responsible medical research is being squandered. Neither Plato nor Hippocrates had a lock on the question of when life begins. No one does.
But when it comes to the serious business of curing deadly diseases in the 21st century, we must discard the use of inflammatory or confusing language. It is urgent that we focus, instead, on exploring the scientific facts of life and potentially life-saving power of regenerative medicine.