Rethinking fetal tissue research So far the researchers have been scientifically bold and ethically cautious. hTC

November 20, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Could we pause for a moment in our race past the new scientific landmarks? We went by this one so fast that we barely had time for more than a single "gee whiz."

This month, the neon news flashing along the medical fast track announced that scientists were finally able to isolate and cultivate embryonic stem cells in the lab. Eventually, we are told, this breakthrough could lead to an endless supply of cells, tissue and organs, not to mention cures for problems from heart disease to Parkinson's disease.

These promises were enough to make the layperson's neck hurt from craning as they sped along. But there are as many ethical cans tied to this scientific breakthrough as rattle behind a bridal getaway car.

The human embryonic stem cells come, of course, from embryos. The research done by biologist James Thomson used the spare embryos from in-vitro fertilization clinics. These were donated by couples who have no further use of them. The embryos were not yet at the stage when they could be implanted.

For those who forgot Biology 1 after taking Politics 101, only a third of all embryos naturally become babies naturally. Only a fourth of those used in fertility treatments develop to birth. The embryonic stem cells isolated from these embryos would never in themselves become babies.

Ethical questions

But anything having to do with the material of human life raises questions that have been locked in over the long, torturous abortion debate. Is a fertilized egg of equal moral status to a

baby? Is it nothing but undifferentiated tissue? What protection does it deserve? In what ways, if any, is it ethical to use it?

We have all sorts of arguments in this country about the leftovers of in-vitro fertilization. We've had custody disputes about frozen eggs. We've had couples sue when their extras where given to others without their knowledge.

Over a year ago in England, 3,000 spare embryos were destroyed under the law and despite some protests. Meanwhile there are couples who feel so strongly that they choose to literally bury the fertilized eggs they couldn't use.

It's clear that human cells have enough moral status that we wouldn't allow them to be used for research into, say, lipsticks. But the question that comes from just the initial phase of stem cell research is whether to use these embryos to cure diseases.

Breakthrough research

Ronald Green, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth University, says the stem cell research is the 21st-century medicine that may enable us to make the human tissue needed to help those with spinal cord injuries, for example, or going through chemotherapy.

The abortion argument can easily distort the complexity of the scientific research. The stunning possibilities of stem cell research don't fit neatly into the anti-abortion or even pro-abortion lingo. How do you balance the life of a frozen embryo and a paralyzed patient?

So far the researchers have been scientifically bold and ethically cautious. But there is plenty of room for squeamishness down the road.

The questions get much, much harder if we even consider creating embryos specifically to use them for research.

In the aftermath of this research, President Clinton asked the National Bioethics Commission that met Tuesday in Miami to put these questions on the agenda. But the irony is that the irreconcilable public arguments over abortion have pushed embryo research into the private market.

In 1995, Congress banned federal funds for research that might harm human embryos. So today we have private companies producing cells for profit.

By opting out of funding, Congress took the federal government off the political hot seat but also out of the oversight business. That has left us with a public concern and a privatized ethical debate.

We need both the public funding for this cutting-edge medicine and the oversight that comes with it. Nobody is sure just how far we want to go. But for the moment, the only traffic signal is on Wall Street. And it's all green.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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