The offices of L. Dennis Smith, president of the University of Nebraska, and Mike Johanns, the state's Republican governor, are less than three miles apart. Their offices are closer than their positions concerning a controversy that, thanks to rapidly evolving biological science, may soon be transcended.
But when it is, we may be nostalgic for the comparative simplicity of today's moral dilemma about the use, in research and medical therapy, of cells derived from fetuses made available by elective abortions. Smith favors this. Johanns does not.
All cells in a human body contain the individual's full DNA--the genetic code. But as the body grows from conception on, a cellular division of labor begins. Cells begin to differentiate, extinguishing, so to speak, all the DNA other than that pertinent to each cell's particular function--as blood, bone, muscle, etc. However, undifferentiated cells--the early progenitors or ancestors of all other cells in the subsequent body--are well-described as "biological jacks-of-all-trades." They can differentiate to form many types of cells. The scientific prognosis is that undifferentiated cells will one day be used to treat a variety of diseases (e.g., Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, HIV-induced dementia) and injuries (e.g. stroke, spinal cord injuries) by producing new tissues.
The bioethical problem is that the life-saving and life-enhancing potential of cell research can be furthered by cells harvested in ways that many consider destructive of respect for life--ways that treat some human lives as mere means for serving the ends of other lives. The controversy over fetal cell research parallels in many ways the controversy over research using cells derived from surplus embryos produced by fertility clinics.
In an act of astonishing civic obtuseness, the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha established a relationship with an abortionist to supply aborted fetuses as sources of cells. The center even gave the abortionist an honorific association with the center, which he advertised on his Web site.
This came to the attention of the Nebraska right-to-life movement. One of the movement's sympathizers, Gov. Johanns, wants to end research using cells obtained that way.
President Smith casts the controversy as one of academic freedom: "We can't teach or do research based on what an interest group wants us to do." He says, "A public university serves all of the people and should strive to be beneficial to mankind."
However, surely a state institution has an obligation of statesmanship, a duty to display decent respect for the deeply held convictions and deeply felt aversions of a substantial portion of the taxpaying public. Catholics certainly, but by no means exclusively, reject utilitarian arguments for research that is dependent on the methodical creation of, or the deliberate interruption of, human life. It is a biological fact, not a theological postulate, that such life is a continuum from conception to death of an entity with a distinct genetic individuality.
Gov. Johanns favors fetal cell research but believes a sufficient supply of cells can be obtained from sources (e.g., spontaneous abortions, miscarriages, placental blood) that do not abrade community sensibilities. The medical center now says it will try to acquire all cells from sources other than elective abortions.
President Smith, a developmental biologist who would like a biology course to be a prerequisite for recipients of his university's baccalaureate degrees, believes that soon science will bypass this controversy. En route, it will produce many others.
In 10 to 15 years, Smith surmises, scientists will be able to take a cell from an individual's skin, de-differentiate it, and manipulate it into a source for various living tissues. In fact, last month researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston reported that undifferentiated cells from muscles of adult mice have a "remarkable capacity" to be transformed into blood cells.
This report is part of a rapidly growing body of evidence that some animal cells can differentiate into tissue types other than their tissue of origin. Dr. Margaret Goodell of the Baylor College says perhaps muscle and other cells "can be turned into heart, brain, nerve, skin or other cell types."
President Smith assumes, plausibly, that mature human cells soon will have, with an assist from science, this capacity. Certainly what seems remarkable in one decade becomes routine in the next.
A disquieting era of genetic manipulation is coming, one that may revolutionize human capacities, and notions of health. If we treat moral scruples impatiently, as inherently retrograde in a scientifically advancing civilization, we will not be in moral trim when--soon--our very humanity depends on our being in trim.