Stem Cells, Therapeutic Cloning, and the Soul

Article excerpt

"Poets and physicians are closely allied in thought. Diagnostics and cure (truth and love, in essence) belong to both professions."

Robert Graves, in a letter to me, December 30, 1961

President Bush has been this country's most effective teacher of biology since Clarence Darrow. No longer can any citizen blame a bad experience in a high school or college class for ignorance of these facts:

* Two sorts of cells -- sperm and egg -- can live longer than the persons whose bodies produces them. For dais to happen, these cells must first join their genetic material together to form a fertilized egg cell with a totally new and unique version of the human genome.

* When a fertilized egg finds itself in a special environment -- a woman's uterus -- it may multiply and differentiate into a new person, whose individuality will be based in large measure on its new genetic makeup. In the laboratory, sperm and egg can be mixed together to form a fertilized egg that will then divide in a dish to produce an early embryo in vitro, which may then be implanted into a woman's uterus to develop into a person, or frozen into a state of suspended animation, or dissociated into separate embryonic stern cells for further study, or discarded.

* Scientists working without federal support have dissociated early embryos into separate cells, and from these they produced some sixty lines of cultured cells that now are claimed to grow indefinitely in a dish. Each of these one day may be stimulated by hormones to differentiate into any of the cell types that make up the body and brain of a person. Such differentiated cells derived from early embryos may have broad medical utility. They may -- in principle, if not yet in practice -- be used to replace tissues worn out by aging or destroyed by accident or infectious disease, or they may be able to rescue the tissues damaged by genetic disease, the inherited inability to produce or maintain one or another aspect of normal tissue development.

All of this current and future biology can be found in the President's short speech of August 10, 2001. From these facts and hopes, the President reached the following two conclusions:

* First, the federal government will fund further research with the sixty currently reported embryonic stem cell lines.

* Second, the federal government will not fund research that would establish any further undifferentiated embryonic stem cell lines, nor research into any other uses of human egg cells.

Both of these conclusions were unexpected and, given the science that accompanied them, both have been hard to understand. The immediate question raised by the first of these two decisions is, why so many lines? If stem cell lines can grow as little balls simply by being given nutrients but not differentiating signals, why not just one cell line, grown and partitioned by the government into as many vials as needed? The complementary question raised by the second decision is, why only these sixty? Having revealed his distaste for the idea of dissociating the cells of an embryo for research purposes, why did the President not authorize research on other technologies that might yield the same or better clinical outcomes without this initial step?

While neither decision makes sense on the basis of the science used by the President to support it, each becomes understandable when seen through the lens of his publicly acknowledged, deeply held religious convictions. It is odd that no one -- not the President, nor the press, nor the many corporate and university ethicists, scientists, and doctors who have spoken out in the past few weeks -- has seemed comfortable admitting the matter of personal religious belief to the discussion of these two decisions. Rather than trying to articulate the President's reasoning -- which would require acknowledging that religious belief has had a place in the national discourse, a fact that they surely already know but apparently cannot say aloud -- most commentators have concluded that these decisions represent no more than the ordinary political compromising. …