E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 14 1999 9:30 PM



Dear Lee,


Does it strike anyone else as curious that the one making claims about metaphysics and invoking souls is the scientist, not the ethicist? Lee, I am worried that your insistence on casting this issue as a dispute between religion and science plays right into the hands of ideologues who would love nothing better than to halt stem cell research in its tracks.

Yes, there are people--including politically very active and well-organized people--who declare that human embryos are morally important people in exactly the same way that you and I are people. To them, disposing of an embryo is morally equivalent to murdering one of our readers. By any count, they are a small minority of Americans. And yes, most Americans holding such convictions would probably count themselves as belonging to what we call the "religious right." Neither of these facts makes the debate over stem cell research a conflict between religion and science.

You could equally well describe it as a dispute within religion. There are many more Americans who identify themselves as religious--and in the same faith tradition that dominates the religious right, Christianity--who do not believe that embryos are people in the full moral sense. Many may believe that embryos deserve some special respect (more than the skin cells we regularly slough off, for example). But that is a far cry from the claim that research with embryos is the same as torturing a child. And, despite your insistence that all cells have essentially the same potential to become viable embryos, stem cells are not embryos. (My scientist colleagues inform me that stem cells will grow into a disorganized mass of cells--not a baby.) It may be possible to, as you put it, "reboot" the nuclear DNA of a stem cell. But, as you also point out, Dolly and the Hawaiian mice showed that you could likewise reactivate the DNA in other cells.

People certainly act as though embryos were different. Sometimes they go to great trouble and expense to make them (in vitro fertilization). They battle in court over them. (When couples create embryos and freeze them, and then break up, they must decide what to do with those embryos. In the first such widely publicized case, the former Mrs. Davis wanted them to be implanted; Mr. Davis wasn't too keen on the idea. Mrs. Davis may have got more than she wished for when the trial judge ruled that all seven remaining frozen embryos should be implanted. Mr. Davis won on appeal.)

Is it theoretically possible that the DNA of other human cells might be used to help make a viable human embryo? I agree that Dolly tells us the answer to that question is yes. Does that make every cell into a potential person? That's an awfully long stretch, Lee. Is it possible that I could replace Michael Jordan as the dominant player in the NBA? Well, sure, but I'd need to run faster, have much better hands, and jump higher. (Right now, at the top of my jump, you could probably slip a credit card under my shoe. On a good day.) I'd also need a literal stretch, being a mere 5 feet 11 inches. Might there be technologies some day that would enable me to do all these things? It's possible, I suppose. But this "potential" doesn't require anyone to treat me as the NBA's Second Coming. Potential is ... potential. Just that. Nothing more. Sneezed-out cells might, some day, be "potential" embryos. So what?

Rather than insulting people who are not extremists but who believe that embryos deserve to be treated with respect, why don't we confront the two challenges that will determine the fate of stem cell research in the foreseeable future? The challenges are intellectual and political. This country desperately needs an honest, nonhysterical dialogue about research on human embryos and on stem cells. We are not going to get there by dismissing most Americans as befuddled. The intellectual challenge is how to get folks to think and talk about this research without immediately retreating into old, rigid habits of thought (including the idea that this is reducible to a conflict between religion and science). The political challenge is how to assure that Congress listens not just to the loudest, most insistent voices but to those trying honestly to strike a sensible balance between respecting moral sensibilities (even the sensibilities of those with whom we disagree) and permitting potentially very exciting science to go forward.

Best wishes,