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Cellular division (continued)

The pragmatic argument against federal funding is, on its surface, more appealing, but in the end it falls apart because of its illogic. Simply put, the pragmatists point out that human embryos are not the only or even necessarily the best source of stem cells, noting that researchers have found stem cells in placenta tissue and, unexpectedly, in adults.

Scott Gottlieb, writing in the American Spectator, reported recently that venture capitalists have been putting their money into adult-stem-cell research rather than into programs that use embryos, mainly because some scientists have found that adult stem cells are easier to control and are thus better suited for medical use. Wesley J. Smith, in the Weekly Standard, offered a similar argument, with the novel twist that the media have suppressed news of advances in adult-stem-cell research because it clashes with the political agenda of the pro-choice movement.

The biggest problem with the pragmatic argument, though, is that pragmatism requires that scientists pursue whatever methods work best. Last month, an advisory commission reporting to Bush found that embryonic stem cells do, indeed, appear to work better than those taken from other sources. If it is the pragmatists’ position that the use of embryonic cells is both morally repugnant and scientifically unnecessary, what will they say if they’re shown to be wrong on the science?

“The ethical questions are certainly riveting, but they may be swiftly trumped by the market,” wrote Gottlieb.

Maybe. Maybe not.

BUSH, WHO’S enjoyed an extraordinarily lucky political life, may get lucky yet again. Though his pending decision is generally described as a classic either/or, Karl Rove, his chief political adviser and principal emissary to the religious right, is reportedly crafting a compromise. A small quantity of stem cells from human embryos are already being used in research; those cells could be made to multiply so that other labs would be able to get their own supplies.

Rove may push his boss to endorse federal funding for research using those particular cells, but no others, which may be enough to placate anti-choice extremists. In time, perhaps work with stem cells taken from adults and placentas will progress to the point that human embryos are no longer needed. Not that that will solve the problem of what to do with the unclaimed, unwanted embryos that exist in suspended animation at fertility clinics (some elements of the religious right have gone so far as to start an “embryo adoption” movement). But that’s a different fight. And it’s one that is sure to get more complicated: on Wednesday the New York Times reported that scientists at a Virginia fertility clinic had created human embryos for the express purpose of conducting research.

There is another important point Bush needs to consider, and it demonstrates that the moral universe can’t always be neatly divided into black and white. Stem-cell research will continue whether there is federal funding or not, and whether it is conducted in the United States or not. The growth and manipulation of stem cells is a serious business: it uses some of the same techniques as cloning and could, in fact, lead to the creation of the first human clones if misused. As Gregg Easterbrook wrote in the New Republic two years ago, the no-federal-funding rule has created the “preposterous” situation in which “most stem-cell research is not being done by publicly funded scientists who must pass multiple levels of peer review and disclose practically everything about their work. Instead, most stem-cell science is in the hands of corporate-backed researchers.”

Thus, not only could funding stem-cell research lead to miraculous cures and treatments to alleviate human suffering; it would also bring scientists out of the shadows and into the light of public accountability.

Stem-cell research is simply too important to leave in the hands of private interests. If Bush lacks the moral courage to stand up to his right-wing supporters, then we’ll all be worse off.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at

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Issue Date: July 12-19, 2001