Contentious Hearing Focuses on Stem Cells

Ronald M. Green, director of the Dartmouth College Ethics Institute, says he questions the moral logic of engineering special embryos for research.
Ronald M. Green, director of the Dartmouth College Ethics Institute, says he questions the moral logic of engineering special embryos for research. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The debate over embryonic stem cell research reached new heights of philosophical complexity yesterday as a Senate subcommittee wrestled with the question of whether human embryos intentionally endowed with fatal genetic flaws would still be too human to justify their mass production for experiments.

The literal bout of soul-searching on Capitol Hill was prompted by opponents of embryo cell research, who hope to undermine support for a bill that would loosen President Bush's four-year-old restrictions on the controversial field.

Central to the newly emerging conservative strategy is an effort to encourage researchers to get the medically promising cells from alternative, albeit unproven, sources instead of from human embryos. Prime among those alternatives are embryos that might not pass muster as "human" because they have been engineered to lack a gene crucial for development into a baby.

The lobbying effort has resulted in the unusual situation of conservative opponents of embryo research, rather than scientists, proposing stem cell experiments that some ethicists say raise profoundly troubling issues.

The approach would be tantamount to "deliberately creating and then destroying an impaired form of human life," Ronald M. Green, director of Dartmouth College's Ethics Institute, told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education.

If the moral logic of the approach is left unchallenged, Green warned, society could find itself heading down a slippery slope in which scientists feel it is okay to produce babies without brains as sources of organs for transplantation.

Conservatives are not unanimous in their support for the new approach to making stem cells. But supporters say the genetic glitch would be inserted into a single cell before it became an embryo, so the resulting "entity" -- though long-lived enough to generate stem cells -- would face a developmental dead end and would therefore be suitable fodder for research.

"There is no embryo there," said Stanford University professor William Hurlbut, a leading proponent of the approach and a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics. Hurlbut referred to the engineered balls of cells as "constructs" subjected to "preemptive alteration."

He said that this and a range of related proposals he has been circulating have garnered "wide support of moral philosophers and religious authorities."

But some lawmakers expressed skepticism that the technical end run represented an improvement over methods that would be allowed under the pending Senate bill. That legislation, passed by the House with bipartisan support in May, would allow federal funding of research on cells from excess embryos already slated for destruction at fertility clinics.

"When the option is to throw them away or use them [in research], it seems to me a clear-cut choice," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), subcommittee chairman, said testily. He has expressed his vexation over stem cell research limits with increasing passion since his own cancer diagnosis last year.

Former Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he agreed with Specter "100 percent," and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the subcommittee's minority leader, criticized Hurlbut's approach as monstrous.

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