Jews vs. Catholics in the stem cell debate.

Science, technology, and life.
March 12 2005 1:01 AM

Oy Vitae

Jews vs. Catholics in the stem cell debate.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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Last week I watched the President's Council on Bioethics discuss an idea to solve the stem cell debate. The idea was to tweak a gene in the cloning process so that the resulting "biological artifact" would grow human stem cells without developing the structure of an embryo. Charles Krauthammer called the idea troubling. Robert George said if the product wasn't an embryo, it was OK. Michael Sandel said it was creepy. Peter Lawler said the key was to avoid destroying embryos. Leon Kass, the council's chairman, said it might seem acceptable to some people but dubious to others. Afterward, I asked some council aides what they thought. At their previous meeting, council members Mary Ann Glendon and Alfonso Gomez-Lobo had all but endorsed the proposal. With a couple of exceptions, the reactions fell into two camps. Catholics leaned one way, Jews the other.

Don't get me wrong. The Catholics had caveats, and the Jews had ambiguities. But caveats and ambiguities are different things. The Catholics were clear about what was moral and what wasn't. The Jews were fuzzy. The best part of the show was George's cross-examination of Krauthammer on the definitions of "creature" and "human." It was like Socrates trying to carve up a bowl of chicken soup. Periodically, Kass waded into the fray to say on the one hand this, on the other hand that. The original ban on funding of destructive embryo research "wasn't written at Sinai," he joked. "And even the things that were written at Sinai are"—he groped for a rabbinical exit—"under review."

I thought about that conversation as I flew to this week's bioethics conference at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. That's pontifical, as in pope. I was invited to speak by Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; the deal was that EPPC would cover my expenses but wouldn't pay me. I learned later that the conference sponsors include the Culture of Life Foundation, the Federalist Society, and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. The conference has a secular title, but let's be real. One of every three people here is a priest. The Washington representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is here. So is President Bush's coordinator for Catholic issues. We're here to talk about the Catholic position on human biotechnology.

To give the event an ecumenical feel, Cohen kicks off the day with an overview. Cohen is a Kass protégé. He's young, lanky, and solemn with glasses and a square-jawed black beard. He sometimes fills in for Kass as a speaker—"the backup Leon," he jokes—but in this case, he's filling in for Yuval Levin, the executive director of the president's council. Cohen's speech touches all the Jewish bases: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Moses, modesty, shame, fear of death, understanding our past, perpetuating our lineage, and the inexplicability of bad things happening to good people. The equality of human beings can't be proved by reason, he says. It's more like a commandment.

The first presenters, a couple of scientists, summarize the state of stem cell research. When they're done, a soft-spoken young priest in the front row raises his hand. "In a case of aneuploidy, it may be possible to laser ablate one or two of the blastomeres," he says. A priest in the back row asks about "aberrant silencing of the IGF and IGF2 receptor." I can hardly believe what I'm hearing. Afterward, I ask the first priest, Father Tad Pacholczyk, where he learned this stuff. Turns out he's got a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Yale, plus a research stint at Harvard Medical School and undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology. Around the room, half the guys in collars are scientists. A couple of weeks ago, there was a conference here on the concept of brain death, which the Vatican is reconsidering in light of new findings.

This is the gauntlet that awaits the conference's two main presenters. One is a team of medical experts from Columbia University, Drs. Don Landry and Howard Zucker. Their plan is to define embryonic death as "the irreversible arrest of cell division," so that cells can be harvested at that point—without destroying a living embryo—to make stem cell lines. The other plan, by Bill Hurlbut, a member of the president's council, is the one that would create "artifacts." Landry, Zucker, and Hurlbut have come here to sell their proposals to the church in the hope that the church, in turn, will help sell these proposals to politicians and the public. Hurlbut has been running his ideas by Pacholczyk and other priests all along. The science and the religion are interwoven. Landry has the lingo down: intrinsic, person, human dignity. When a priest compares embryonic cell harvesting to fetal tissue harvesting, Landry replies, "In abortion, the objective is death." Hurlbut says legalized abortion has become a "travesty" and is "not altogether unfairly called the silent holocaust."

Hurlbut gets an A for effort, but the priests conclude that his science needs work. His plan is to test his idea on mice before trying it on humans. Father Nicanor Austriaco, a white-robed Dominican brother with a doctorate in biology from MIT, uses PowerPoint to demonstrate that the gene Hurlbut wants to delete in mice * doesn't affect the embryo until at least the eight-cell stage. This means Hurlbut's "artifact" would develop just like an embryo until then, which in humans would raise theological problems. Austriaco cites lab data indicating that the embryonic axis begins to form at the two-cell stage. Therefore, the only moral approach is to delete a gene that enables differentiation at the first cell division.

Cohen follows with a more nuanced critique. He worries about "the meaning of limited development," "creating beings that are deliberately less than human," and whether this might "deform our understanding" of our relationship to others. He questions the instrumental laboratory use of eggs and sperm, which "have a kind of meaning" as seeds of the next generation, even if they aren't embryos. He finds Hurlbut's artifacts creepy because cloned entities "want to develop," even if they can't. The priests scratch their heads. What does wanting have to do with it? Either the thing can grow into a baby, or it can't. If it can, it's sacred. If it can't, all this fuzzy stuff about limited development and deformed understanding and kinds of meaning doesn't add up to a basis for withholding stem cells that might save people's lives.