Friday, December 28, 2007

An "Interview" with Robert George: Part 3

What is centrally and decisively true about human embryos and fetuses?

They are living individuals of the species Homo sapiens—members of the human family—at early stages of their natural development. Each of us was once an embryo, just as each of us was once an adolescent, a child, an infant, and a fetus. Each of us developed from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of our lives, and into adulthood, with his or her distinctness, unity, and identity fully intact. As modern embryology confirms beyond any possibility of doubt, we were never mere parts of our mothers; we were, from the beginning, complete, self-integrating organisms that developed to maturity by a gradual, gapless, and self-directed process.

What is entailed by this dignity?

Our foundational principle of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being demands that all members of the human family be respected and protected irrespective not only of race, sex, and ethnicity but also of age, size, location, stage of development, and condition of dependency. To exclude anyone from the law’s protection is to treat him unjustly.

Under prevailing law, can human embryos in cyropreservation units be protected?

No; they can (1) be destroyed, or (2) donated for research in which they are destroyed to produce stem cells.

But isn't there a bigger issue than the use of cryopreserved embryos produced by in-vitro fertilization?

The real issue is the practice of creating human embryos by cloning to be destroyed either in the blastocyst stage (days five to six) or later in gestation. There are not nearly enough cryopreserved embryos for use in the research that scientists wish to perform. If, in fact, embryonic stem cells become usable in therapies to treat major diseases—indeed, even if they prove useful in treating a single major disease type—millions of embryos will be needed in relatively short order. Moreover, in vitro embryos are all products of the genetic lottery. They are not a genetic match to the patient who would be treated. As with vital organ transplantation, this raises the likelihood of rejection and the need for immunosuppression and other medical interventions.

But cloning holds out a different possibility, right?

Since the embryonic clone would be a twin of the donor, the rejection problem would probably be very substantially reduced. Cloning has not yet been perfected, but it likely will be. Thus, we face the prospect of human life being manufactured on a massive scale in order to be destroyed in biomedical work.

But what about stem cells?

Stem cells of the sort we now have debates about—those obtained by destroying human embryos in the blastocyst stage—cannot currently be used in therapies and may never prove to be therapeutically useful. Despite the promises of magic cures, these stem cells—whether obtained from in-vitro embryos or from clones—are highly unstable and tend to generate tumors. That helps to explain why there is not a single embryonic stem cell therapy even in stage one of clinical trials. (By contrast, there are a large number of trials in progress—indeed, some have been successfully completed—using nonembryonic cells, such as those obtained harmlessly from umbilical-cord blood, amniotic fluid and placental tissue, bone marrow, and other uncontroversial sources.) Apparently, no one quite knows even how to begin thinking about the extraordinarily complex challenges of stabilizing embryonic cells so that they can be used in therapies.

What's the current status on state legislation for funding these sorts of things?

Legislation in several states, including my home state of New Jersey, proposes to make state funding available for the macabre practice of human fetal farming. It is difficult to imagine a more egregious abuse of governmental power. Congress, however, was persuaded to pass a preemptive ban on the practice, which President Bush signed. This is a fine example of the pro-life movement’s looking ahead to problems likely to arise three to five years down the road and acting while public opinion is favorable. Most Americans are horrified by the idea of creating a human life, gestating it, and aborting it to harvest cells and tissues. Even most supporters of abortion are repulsed by this possibility—at least for now. But for those who would like to go down that path, there is always hope that the promise of miracle cures can be used to erode public resistance. Hence the legislation in New Jersey and elsewhere, laying the groundwork for fetal farming.

How significant is the congressional prohibition?

Although it is an important achievement, it is a modest one.

What should our long-term goal be?

It must be a comprehensive ban on all forms of human cloning, including the creation of embryos to be destroyed in research.

What is the long-term goal of pro-cloning forces?

Federal funding for the creation of research embryos by cloning. If there is a true moral nightmare in our future, it is a massive, federally funded industry in the manufacture and destruction of human beings. (As this ­article goes to press, work by leading stem-cell scientists has been published showing that pluripotent stem cells—cells with the exact properties of embryonic stem cells—can be produced by reprogramming ordinary skin cells obtained harmlessly from donors. Assuming that fetal farming is not the goal, this research could well make embryo-destruction for biomedical-research purposes obsolete.)