The False Controversy of Stem Cells

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Congratulations to representative Dana Rohrabacher, 56, and his wife Rhonda, 34, who gave birth to triplets last month. As we tend to suspect when a couple has triplets, the new parents used the services of a fertility clinic. Modern in-vitro techniques generally involve creating multiple embryos in the laboratory, transferring two or three and hoping that at least one will make it through to birth. Often it doesn't work. Sometimes it works unexpectedly well. Successful or not, the process creates many more embryos than babies. There is a built-in presumption — really, an intention — that even most of the transferred embryos will die. As for embryos that aren't transferred, they get destroyed or frozen indefinitely — unless, that is, they are used for stem-cell research.

So it's interesting that Rohrabacher has changed his position on the medical use of embryonic stem cells. The California Republican was a supporter of President Bush's three-year-old policy severely restricting government-funded stem-cell research. But he signed a recent letter to Bush from 206 members of Congress urging the President to reconsider that policy. Bush says he won't reconsider.

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"Embryonic stem-cell studies are controversial because they involve the destruction of human embryos," the New York Times explained in a May 6 article reporting on the shifting politics of stem-cell research. (For example, Nancy Reagan, whose husband has Alzheimer's, has gone public with her opposition to the Bush restrictions.) But that can't be right. Fertility clinics destroy far more human embryos than stem-cell research ever would, yet they are not controversial. Death or deep freeze is the fate of any embryo spared by the Bush policy from the indignity of contributing to medical progress.

Stamping some issue as controversial can be a substitute for thinking it through. In the case of embryonic-stem-cell research, thinking it through does not require further study or commissions of experts. This is one you can feel free to try at home. In fact, thinking it through is a moral obligation, especially if you are on the side of the argument that wants to stop or slow this research.

It's not complicated. An embryo used in stem-cell research (and fertility treatments) is three to five days past conception. It consists of a few dozen cells that together are too small to be seen without a microscope. It has no consciousness, no self-awareness, no ability to feel love or pain. The smallest insect is far more human in every respect except potential.

Is destroying that microscopic dot the exact moral equivalent of driving a knife through the heart of an innocent 6-year-old girl? Some stem-cell enthusiasts think that even antiabortion absolutists can support stem-cell research, since it uses surplus embryos that are doomed anyhow. But that logic would justify Nazi experiments on doomed Jews in the concentration camps. If the microscopic dot is a human being with full human rights, the answer is easy: no stem-cell research.

But you don't have to be an abortion-rights advocate to reach the opposite conclusion. In fact, for abortion opponents whose views fall anywhere short of fanatical absolutism, the answer ought to be easy as well: full speed ahead. To the nonabsolutist, it ought to matter a lot that restricting stem-cell research doesn't actually spare the lives of any embryos. That means the lives of real people desperately awaiting the fruits of stem-cell research are being weighed against a purely symbolic message.

It also ought to matter to the nonfanatic that embryos are needed only to start the research process. Most of the research and all the treatments that come out of it will use so-called lines developed out of a few initial stem cells in the laboratory. That makes the stem-cell issue different from — and easier than — the one about fetal tissues a few years ago. Fetal-tissue treatments use brain tissue from several aborted fetuses for each patient. An embryo used in stem-cell research has nothing resembling a brain.

A difficult issue is one in which you hold two or more conflicting values. Stem cells are not a difficult issue: either you think a microscopic embryo has the same human rights as you and I, or you don't. Do you believe that a woman who gets an abortion should be prosecuted for murder, just like a mother who hires a professional killer to off her teenage son? Are you picketing around fertility clinics, which kill hundreds of thousands of unborn children — if that's what you believe a 5-day-old embryo to be — just like abortion clinics do? If so, you are entitled to oppose stem-cell research. If not, please get out of the way.