Tuesday morning, I drive past the White House on my way to a stem-cell hearing on Capitol Hill. It feels like one of those basketball playoff series that go back and forth from one city to the other. A month and a half ago, proponents of embryonic stem-cell research—for simplicity’s sake, I’ll call them the pros—pushed a research funding bill through the House, establishing their supremacy in Congress. Then the series moved to the White House, where the antis scored a victory as President Bush pledged to veto the bill.
Now the series moves back to Congress. The pros have orchestrated this hearing. All the senators present are on their side, as are three of the four advocates scheduled to testify. The lone anti witness, Stanford biologist Bill Hurlbut, serves on Bush’s bioethics council but opens his remarks by quoting President Clinton’s. That’s what you have to do in the other team’s building.
But it turns out that the pros aren’t in control of this game. In fact, it isn’t a game, and this is no longer a series. It has become a dialogue, born of each team’s failure to eliminate the other. The pros, by winning a referendum in California last fall and passing the House bill, have forced the antis to propose alternative, non-lethal ways of getting embryonic stem cells. The antis, by offering four such ideas in a report from Bush’s bioethics council, have forced the pros to apply their scientific ingenuity to those ideas. The ethics and the science are all mixed up. It’s beautiful.
Tuesday’s hearing is a fine example. The pros have chosen the witnesses, but the antis have forced the topic: the council’s ideas. The pros have to address these ideas because the ideas are luring senators away from the bill to fund embryo-destructive stem-cell research. The first idea—let’s call it harvesting—is to take cells from embryos that have stopped developing but still have useful parts. The second, which several witnesses call biopsy, is to take cells from very early embryos, before such cell loss is fatal. The third—altered nuclear transfer, or ANT—is to tweak the cloning process so that the resulting entity grows embryonic parts without becoming an embryo. The fourth, known as dedifferentiation, is to reprogram adult cells to revert to an embryonic state.
The hearing’s first advocate-witness, Robert Lanza, is vice president of Advanced Cell Technology, a biotech firm. He’s so boyish you can hardly believe he runs much of the groundbreaking research in this field. He doubts harvesting will work. Non-dividing embryos, it seems, are like Monty Python’s famous parrot: You can’t tell whether they’re dead or just resting. He hates ANT, which in his view would create “crippled embryos.” Already the teams are blurring: Here’s a stem-cell entrepreneur rejecting a research proposal for purely moral reasons. He loves dedifferentiation; in fact, he’s working on it already. And he has a suggestion to rescue the biopsy idea from moral objections that it might harm the embryo. We already take cells from some early embryos for preimplantation genetic testing. Why not just use those cells to derive stem cell lines? Has Lanza forgotten which team he’s on? He’s helping to fix the alternatives.
Next up is Ronald Green, a bearded professor who chairs the ethics advisory board of Lanza’s company. He, too, likes dedifferentiation and biopsy, though he thinks the latter is more practical. He objects to harvesting and excoriates ANT, which he compares to manufacturing a brainless infant so you can take its organs. A few years ago, when Green dismissed cloned embryos as “activated eggs,” conservatives derided him as a fake ethicist. Now he’s comparing near-embryos to infants. Has the opposition’s seizure of the scientific initiative put some ethics in the ethicist?
The third witness, professor George Daley of Harvard Medical School, is another top stem-cell researcher. He thinks harvesting will fail because embryos that stop dividing are probably defective. He also points out that harvesting and biopsy would only get you stem cells with somebody else’s DNA, not yours. Like Lanza, he rejects ANT because in his view it “creates a defective embryo.” But he concedes that it’s technically feasible. He likes dedifferentiation but asks a penetrating question I’ve never heard from a nonscientist: “Can we assign value to a cell based on its pattern of gene expression?” If we reprogram one of your body cells to make it embryonic, the DNA doesn’t change; the cell just expresses its genes differently. Where’s the bright moral line in that?
The final witness, Hurlbut, was invited at the last minute but fits in perfectly. He began pressing the Bush council three years ago to come up with an alternative way of getting embryonic stem cells. He’s been doing what a scientist does: float ideas, bounce them off researchers, and revise the ANT proposal constantly. He tells the senators there are several ways of trying it. He also criticizes conventional embryonic stem-cell research scientifically, in a way that pro scientists won’t and anti nonscientists can’t. The pro witnesses complain that the alternative proposals are speculative. Hurlbut points out that conventional stem-cell research is speculative, too.
Some of the moral testimony is pretty weak. Why, for example, does Green think it’s OK to destroy embryos if they’re still dividing, but it’s wrong to destroy them if they aren’t? But much is learned. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin, who thought embryos killed for stem-cell research had eight cells, discovers that it’s more like 100. Harkin tries to torpedo ANT by reading from a bioethics council report, only to find that the report recommends ANT for animal studies, which is all that’s been proposed. The senators grapple with the moral status of near-embryos and try to sort out which alternatives have been tried in animals or people. A year ago, they knew nothing of these alternatives, because the antis hadn’t been forced to propose them, and the pros hadn’t been forced to consider them. It’s amazing how much progress you can make when nobody wins.