Fact vs. Politics on Stem Cells

by Richard M. Doerflinger

January 12, 2007

An unusual thing happened on the way to Congress's latest vote on stem cell research: A science journal, and secular news media, got something right on this issue.

Media bias in favor of the (speculative) "promise" of stem cells obtained by destroying embryos has been obvious for years. As for the journals, three of the most prestigious – Nature, Science and the New England Journal of Medicine – had to retract part or all of articles extolling advances in that field in the past two years when it turned out they were misleading or falsified. But on January 7 the journal Nature Biotechnology reported a real breakthrough, and the media accurately noted how it changes this debate.

The advance comes from researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Children's Hospital in Boston, who isolated extremely useful and versatile stem cells from the amniotic fluid surrounding unborn children in the womb. The cells were found in fluid left over from amniocentesis procedures, but could also be obtained from this fluid or the placenta at the time of live birth. The cells grow rapidly and easily, and apparently produce a wide variety of cell types for research and future therapies, without forming the tumors that have plagued many animal trials using embryonic stem cells.

In short, these cells (along with similar cells recently found in cord blood, bone marrow and elsewhere) may have the practical advantages of embryonic stem cells for helping patients, with none of the practical or moral disadvantages. And the 4 million live births in this country every year offer an ample supply of such cells for treatments without harming anyone.

A win-win situation, you might say? A development everyone can praise? Maybe even a reason to stop trying to force taxpayers to help kill embryos?

Not if you're immersed in the political drive for embryo destruction. Researchers committed to that approach, and their allies on Capitol Hill, quickly recovered from this surprise and marshaled their arguments against taking the new study too seriously.

Those arguments are, to say the least, weak. One scientist/advocate, Lawrence Goldstein, even criticized the new cells for not making tumors, saying that this makes him doubt they are really "pluripotent." (So embryonic cells are better because they would give patients tumors?) Another, George Daley of Harvard, said the cells are "not a substitute for human embryonic stem cells, which allow scientists to address a host of other interesting questions in early human development."

To be more candid Dr. Daley should have added that to study early human development, embryonic stem cells are no substitute for being able to develop and manipulate embryos themselves as research material, the real goal of some of his colleagues. He could have noted as well that stem cells from so-called "spare" embryos (the subject of the House vote) are no substitute for the tailor-made embryos he is now pursuing through human cloning research at Harvard. Congressional supporters of the embryonic stem cell bill actually rejected an amendment designed to keep federal stem cell grants from encouraging human cloning for stem cell research -- because cloning may be their next necessary step in trying to derive benefit from the destruction of life.

Supporters say they will keep bringing up the embryonic stem cell bill, again and again, until it is law. Or, perhaps, until suffering patients and their families cry "Enough!" and remind them they were supposed to be working for cures.

Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.