Science Without Conscience

A class action lawsuit was filed mid-February in federal district court against Bayer AG, the German pharmaceutical giant. Eva Mozes Kor, the named plaintiff, founded an organization devoted to the 112 Auschwitz survivors of the deadly research carried out by Dr. Josef Mengele and others in Nazi concentration camps.

From archives found at Auschwitz and academic research, it appears that Bayer played an active role in harmful experiments on those confined to concentration camps. The suit alleges that Bayer paid Nazi officials for access to prisoners, monitored and supervised medical experiments at Auschwitz, and bought inmates from the Nazis for use in their own experiments.

Eva and her twin sister Miriam, born in Transylvania in 1934, were brought to Auschwitz at age nine. There, they became one of 1,500 sets of twins subjected to grotesque experiments. The suit states: "Bayer provided toxic chemicals to the Nazis. ... Some of those experiments involved injecting concentration camp inmates with toxic chemicals and germs known to cause diseases in order to test the effectiveness of various drugs made by Bayer" (L.A. Times, Feb. 18, 1999, p. A-18).

To test the effect of the bacteria, chemicals or viruses on the injected twin, it was often necessary to kill both twins and perform autopsies on them. Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops, just ten months after Eva and Miriam had arrived there. But in this short time, it is alleged that Miriam's kidneys were damaged and never grew to normal adult size. She died in 1993 of kidney disease.

What has this atrocity to do with us?

It has more to do with us than many like to think. From the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on black Americans to our government's cold war radiation experiments on unconsenting women and unborn children, American researchers have shown that they, too, are tempted to treat fellow humans as mere research material unless society sounds the alarm.

Today there is another group of humans who are considered "discards," who some intelligent, rational people think could be useful subjects for lethal experimentation in the cause of advancing medical knowledge. Today's discards are the "unwanted" embryos in fertility clinics around the world.

Notwithstanding the law banning federal funding of such research, and with disconcerting speed, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and several U.S. biotechnology companies are drumming up support for research which involves killing human embryos to obtain their stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells are the fast-growing, undifferentiated cells which make up the inner cell mass of a week-old embryo and are capable of producing the variety of specialized cell types brain, muscle, blood, and liver, for example.

The act of "isolating"or harvesting embryonic stem cells necessarily kills the embryo. The process goes like this: After a human embryo is artificially created in the lab through in vitro fertilization (IVF) or somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning), he or she develops for about five days to the blastocyst stage. The blastocyst consists of an outer ring of cells the trophoblast which will ultimately form the placenta and an "inner cell mass." Extracting these inner cells results in the embryo's death as surely as if you cut out a child's heart and lungs.

Since 1995, Congress has prohibited the use of federal funds (1) to create human embryos for research purposes and (2) for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death..." The ban was enacted in reaction to morally objectionable proposals for embryo research made in 1994 by the NIH's Human Embryo Research Panel (HERP).

How are advocates of such research, in government and industry, hoping to circumvent the ban? By smoke and mirrors: Pay no attention to what we're doing in the lab, just keep your eyes on all the potential medical benefits. Benefits like miracle cures for diseases that strike terror in the hearts of aging baby boomers: Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, stroke, cancer. Benefits like growing organs for transplant and cell rejuvenation.

Certainly no one could be insensitive to the suffering of those afflicted with debilitating illnesses. Everyone ought to be excited about the possibility of developing treatments that might alleviate suffering, restore full health and prolong life. But such treatments must not be bought at the price of other human lives. A human life is inherently sacred and inviolable at every stage, whether her body consists of one cell or millions. And, as we shall see, all such destruction is unnecessary for medical progress.

The blueprint for the campaign to advance destructive embryo research was suggested at the December 1, 1994 meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH, where HERP members first offered their recommendations for approval. Panel members were visibly annoyed at the negative public reaction to this research, which they attributed to public "ignorance ... manipulated into public hostility."

The Advisory Committee members recommended ways of overcoming public opposition. First, focus on the possibility of curing diseases which have eluded standard medical solutions. Dr. John Trojanowski, member of the National Advisory Committee on Aging, stated that "disease groups" (associations that seek charitable contributions and tax dollars to support education and research in a particular disease) should be enlisted to tell their members and other citizens that embryo research holds the promise of a cure for their specific disease. Dr. Richard Corlin (of the American Medical Association) developed that idea a step further:

"[Let us] do our homework to determine which people in Congress the new leadership, the majority leadership particularly, and also on the committees to whom you will have to make presentations have family members with which particular illnesses and make individual visits to them to background them and brief them and discuss their particular family history concerns prior to the hearing."

In other words, promise a cure for the particular disease in which they have a personal stake.

Second, take an incremental approach, beginning with an area of research that the "public would be persuaded were valuable," one not overtly repellant like cloning or human/animal hybrids. Dr. Trojanowski offered the development of embryonic cell lines as such a "flagship issue." And so it came to pass that in December 1998 and January 1999, Senator Arlen Specter, chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor and Health and Human Services, obliged with three hearings to showcase advocates ranging from suffering patients and disease group lobbyists to malleable bioethicists and biotech company executives.

At two of these hearings the task fell to Richard Doerflinger of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities to call a spade a spade in this case, to remind the scientific community that while an embryonic human stem cell is not a human organism, it can be acquired only at the expense of a human life.

Richard defended the clear intent of federal laws in response to a legal memo by HHS general counsel Harriet Rabb, which offered tortured interpretations of statutes and novel definitions of "human being" to argue that the ban on funding embryo research allows funding of research which requires destroying embryos to obtain stem cells. HHS argues, for example, that it's perfectly valid to use private funds to destroy embryos for their stem cells, then use federal funds to obtain the ill-gotten cells for further research. Under this cockeyed reasoning, funding is banned only if it pays directly for the killing ignoring the statute's clear ban on funding any part of a research project in which embryos are destroyed. It's ludicrous to think Congress would forbid a lethal act done by Dr. Y, but allow Dr. Y to hire an assassin X to kill the same victim.

Another argument in the HHS memo is that a human embryo is not an "organism" unless it is proved that the embryo would have become a "human being" if implanted in a woman's womb. Dr. Harold Varmus, NIH director, went so far as to argue that a "human being" is "an entire mature organism," a definition that would exclude the majority of teenagers. Some researchers have already offered to engineer lethal defects in advance into the embryos they create for research so they would fall outside this new definition of "organism" and be subject to every form of lethal experiment.