The Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed, by a convincing margin (238-194) and over the objections of its leadership, a bill that would partially undo President Bush’s restrictive policy on stem cell research. It is unlikely to become law, however. The Bill will face significant hurdles (including a filibuster threat) in the Senate. More importantly, Bush has already said he’ll veto it, and the margin in the House is well short of the two-thirds needed to override.
But still, this is great news, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it’s great to see a significant number of House Republicans defying both their own wacky leadership and a Bush veto threat to pass a bill on an important public policy issue. And yes, in the sense that it’s great to see that many Republicans as well as Democrats understand the potential promise of embryonic stem cell research.
But no, in the sense that the House bill seems to me to suffer from a bit of the same fallacy that our own Governor’s stem cell position suffers from. The House bill would lift Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research only if the cell lines in question are derived from "surplus" embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics. It does nothing to encourage American scientists to keep pace with, among others, the South Koreans who have recently announced impressive results through the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).
Why is this distinction so important? I can see two reasons. First, on the science: the great thing about SCNT is that, when successfully accomplished, it leads to cell lines that exactly match the DNA of the patient you are trying to treat. That gives you the best chance of avoiding rejection and other incompatibility problems. And that is what the South Korean researchers did. In contrast, because a "surplus" embryo from an in vitro clinic is the result of a sperm cell fertilizing an egg cell, the DNA of that embryo is unique and does not match anyone. A cell line derived from a "surplus" embryo might be useful for research, but my guess is that the more promising therapeutic possibilities will come from SCNT. I am no scientist, but this just strikes me as common sense.
Second, on the moral and ethical issues: I’ve pounded away at Mitt Romney’s "OK to use surplus embryos, but not to engage in SCNT" position on numerous occasions, so I don’t need to restate the whole argument here. Here’s the short version: it doesn’t make ANY sense to me. A "surplus" embryo is a fertilized egg cell that, if implanted into a woman’s uterus, has a good chance of developing into a living breathing human (as Bush’s photo-op with children who were adopted as "surplus" embryos was designed to show). And it was created with the intention of having a baby. If the couple that created the embryo now does not want to use it, that does not change the nature of the embryo. SCNT, in contrast, does not involve the fertilization of an egg cell. It is a scientific trick whereby an egg cell whose nuclear material has been replaced is induced to divide, thereby creating genetic carbon copies of itself. No ethical scientist undertakes this procedure with the intention of trying to create a human being, and it is not very likely that it would work even if it were tried.
I can appreciate that certain religious or moral points of view would have a problem with either of these methods of undertaking embryonic stem cell research. My point is that SCNT seems to me far less objectionable than the use of "surplus" embryos. So the House bill, and Governor Romney’s position, seem to me exactly backward – they are less likely to encourage the most promising avenues of scientific research, and they are less morally and ethically defensible, than a policy encouraging SCNT.