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The politics of stem cell research

Looking for middle ground in a minefield

by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

The Bush administration is attracting attention for its effort to resolve the question of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

Thinking about whether the research should go forward very much depends on one's view of the status of human embryos and how that ought to be weighed against the promise of stem cell research. So far, the best stem cells seem to come from human embryos, which are destroyed in the process of removing stem cells.

For some, embryonic stem cell research requires the taking of a human life, but for others, it represents the acceptable use of cells from very early stage embryos that would never have developed into a person. The research is considered critical by many scientists and disease advocacy groups, who say it could lead to treatments -- or even cures -- for conditions like diabetes and Parkinson's. But for others, the promise of stem cell research is outweighed by the moral cost of the source of the cells.

What are the policy options, what are their ethical implications, and can there really be a middle ground?

This debate began in the early 1980s, with a ban on federal funding for research involving either the use of fetal tissue or harm to human embryos. The ban did not make such research illegal, but it prevented the use of federal dollars to support it.

The ban was lifted for funding of fetal tissue research in 1993, when promising approaches were proposed for treatment of Parkinson's disease, but the ban on federal funding for human embryo research remains in effect.

Before the change in administrations, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) requested a legal ruling about whether funding of research involving embryonic stem cells would violate the ban. The ruling was that research on the cells themselves would not violate the ban, so long as federal funding was not used to collect the cells from embryos. The Clinton administration proposed to fund research proposals that adhered to this distinction, though no funding was granted before President Clinton left office.

The fine distinction in the NIH policy created the possibility of a private market for supplying stem cells for publicly funded research. For those who object to the destruction of embryos for stem cell research, this represents an unacceptable end run around the intent of the original research ban.

In practice, the embryos used in the collection of stem cells were left over from attempts to assist reproduction -- donated by couples who used in vitro fertilization. There are about 200,000 frozen embryos throughout the world, all awaiting decisions about what should be done with them. The vast majority will either remain frozen indefinitely or be discarded, so proponents of embryonic stem cell research ask, why not allow them to be donated for research purposes? To ban such use would have the effect of exporting stem cell research overseas to countries where it is not illegal -- in fact, the United Kingdom has already given approval to such research.

White House policymakers must decide how far to go in allowing stem cell research, or whether to ban funding altogether. One possible compromise is to fund only research using the embryonic stem cell lines that already exist, and refuse funding for research that relies on future destruction of embryos, even if the cells are collected in the private sector. But the administration would still have a problem with "dirty hands" -- public monies would be spent on research that required and relied on the destruction of embryos. Limiting research to a few cell lines is less than scientists hope for, but may be all the Bush administration can muster.

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.



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