Here's the editorial and my response for those of you with nothing better to do....
The Privatization of Stem Cells
The New York Times
March 9, 2004
The Bush administration's limits on federal financing for embryonic stem cell research are turning out to be a lot more restrictive than originally advertised. Only a minority of the stem cell lines that the president implied might become available under his policy have actually panned out. Thus it was extremely good news when Harvard researchers, supported by private funds, said they had produced and would freely share some 17 new embryonic stem cell lines, doubling the number available. Private and state funds may need to pick up the slack if this promising field of research is to expand in coming years.
Embryonic stem cell research is controversial because extracting the cells requires the destruction of very tiny days-old embryos. When Mr. Bush announced his policy on Aug. 9, 2001, he sought a compromise that would allow some research to go forward without encouraging further destruction of early-stage embryos. He said the government would finance research using stem cell lines that had already been derived from leftover embryos at fertility clinics but not from any new lines developed after the date of his announcement. The administration estimated that more than 60 existing cell lines around the world might qualify to be used in federally financed research, and it later raised that estimate to 78. But many of those cell lines have failed to develop or are not readily available for one reason or another. The National Institutes of Health says 15 stem cell lines are currently ready for use, with perhaps 8 more in the wings.
That may well be enough to get the field started. There is little evidence yet that vital work has been stymied by an inability to get access to suitable cell lines. Indeed, N.I.H. officials say the limiting factor on accelerating the field has been a shortage of qualified scientists applying for federal grants, not any inability to get cell lines to work with. Whether scientists are shying away because of the inherent difficulty of working with the cells or because they are worried that politically driven restrictions might disrupt their work in midstream is uncertain. Whatever the case, N.I.H. is currently putting 10 times as much money into research on adult stem cells, which don't raise the same ethical concerns but are generally considered less promising, as it spends on embryonic stem cells.
By most accounts N.I.H. has done a creditable job in getting cell lines ready and sponsoring research within prescribed limits. Yet the day will surely come when scientists will need a wider variety of cell lines for research and potential clinical applications. The Harvard offer was welcome because its new cell lines, extracted while destroying embryos donated by fertility clinic patients, are designed to be fast-growing and easy to handle, making them potentially more useful than the officially approved lines. The hitch is that any work with these cells must be financed privately. Several other universities and a couple of states are also moving to pump money into stem cell research. It is a laudable effort to keep federal financing rules from crimping advances on this frontier of human biology.
And my response....
To the Editor,
It is disheartening to see the ethical debate over the use of stem cells harvested from human embryos so quickly dismissed as "politically driven restrictions" in your editorial "The Privatization of Stem Cells" on March 9th. We have seen the utilitarian "ends justifies the means" argument before, sometimes in ghastly contexts. It gave us the rapid development and deployment of nuclear weapons technology without extended reflection and debate. It also, in medicine, has promoted the use of data from Nazi medical experiments on concentration camp victims, regardless of the means by which that data was obtained. Perhaps scientists are shying away not merely, as you allow, because of the difficulty of the research or fear of political interference, but because there are real ethical questions involved. Such hesitation in the scientific community should be applauded and examined, not glossed over.
Michael Anthony Novak
Department of Theology