For the Greater Good? The Problem of Stem Cells

Stan Guthrie | Contributing Writer | Thursday, August 26, 2010

For the Greater Good? The Problem of Stem Cells

August 27, 2010

It was the spring of 1942. A Jewish delicatessen clerk was placed into a decompression chamber at Dachau. According to Ernest Volkman's Science Goes to War, the prisoner, remembered only as "L," died a gruesome death while a placid group of scientists looked on to gain valuable data on high-altitude flight—to serve the greater good. "L" was but one of several hundred "subhuman" victims of scientific experimentation at Dachau. Many of the researchers no doubt justified their work with the excuse that the "selectees" were going to die anyway.

"In a time when belief in and adherence to the social and political institutions of the state became the new religion, science did not remain independent," Volkman writes. "Science became indispensable to the state; the modern world's Merlins were the wizards who produced the magic machines that won wars. To a large extent, the arrangement was Faustian: scientists were pampered, sheltered, and rewarded as long as they were unswervingly loyal to the state."

Yes, the Allies finally defeated the Nazi evil through a fearsome mixture of "blood, sweat, and tears" (not to mention a healthy dose of God's Providence). But they did not eradicate the evil assumptions and attitudes that allowed a society's finest, best-educated citizens to exploit another group of human beings as just so much raw material.

This is not a column about abortion. The comparison between the Holocaust and the tens of millions of unborn human lives lost to abortion since 1973 is apt, but well-worn. It is instead an examination of a much more recent evil, the destruction of human embryos so that their stem cells can be captured in the name of another "greater good"—medical progress.

Stem cells may be able to replace or repair damaged tissue, greatly assist with organ transplants, and treat or cure conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's, and spinal cord injuries. All stem cells, however, are not alike. There are three types: human embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells (from a new technique that produces pluripotent cells from adult cells). Scientists prize embryonic stem cells because of their pluripotency, which enables them to differentiate into many cell types, including skin, heart, and brain.

But the stubborn fact remains that adult stems cells, which have been studied for more than 50 years, have produced treatments for 73 diseases and conditions, including nerve cell damage and multiple sclerosis. So far, research from embryonic stem cells has produced exactly zero cures, and more than a few nasty side effects.

There's one other main difference between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. To get embryonic stem cells, a human embryo—in other words, a genetically complete, nascent human life—must be destroyed. These lives are available to researchers from "leftover" frozen embryos in fertility clinics. Supporters suggest it is fine to use them because they will be thrown out anyway.

"[T]he bottom line is that there are 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States, and a large percentage of those are going to be thrown out," said James Thomson, the first scientist to isolate and culture embryonic stem cells. "Regardless of what you think the moral status of those embryos is, it makes sense to me that it's a better moral decision to use them to help people than just to throw them out. It's a very complex issue, but to me it boils down to that one thing."

Waste not, want not … or a reprise of the Dachau experiments on "subhumans" who were "going to die anyway"?

Such scientists display an eerily familiar eagerness for quick scientific progress that overlooks larger moral issues, such as the oath that a physician should, first of all, "do no harm." Of course, it's hard for physicians to toe the Hippocratic line when the cream of society—from Michael J. Fox to Barack Obama—is pushing them toward Machiavelli. As in Nazi Germany, the rewards for scientists willing to go along are substantial.

Last year the president announced an executive order overturning the Bush-era compromise on limited federal funding of such research. Obama said that he wants to ensure that "scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." If only.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the brave new world. On Aug. 23, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction blocking the federal government from underwriting research that destroys embryonic stem cells. The Food and Drug Administration had just approved the first human trials with embryonic stem cells for people with spinal cord injuries. Geron Corp of Menlo Park is in charge of the research. Lamberth, however, said it violates a 1996 law that forbids any research grants for projects that destroy human embryos.

Advocates of such research were, in a word, flabbergasted. "This is criminal," sputtered Robert Lanza of Santa Monica-based Advanced Cell Technology, a private company. "We are talking about people going blind, people who are dying from a terrifying array of diseases." Irving Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, was similarly nonplussed: "The long-term practical impact is a massive halt to most embryonic stem cell research in the U.S."

Actually, no. While Lamberth's ruling temporarily halts expanded federal funding, such research, if paid for privately, remains fully legal. Industry analyst expects the sector to grow at a 25 percent annual clip, with the market bulging from $3.8 billion this year to $10.7 billion in 2015. Truly, "thare's gold in them thar stem cells."

But aside from all the scientific and financial wrangling, an overarching moral issue remains. The late John Paul II crystallized it for us: "The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act."

If we believed this in the aftermath of 1942, why don't we believe it today?

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of the forthcoming All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker Books, November 2010). Stan blogs at