Embryonic Stem Cell Research—Mythology 101: The 2007 LLDF Banquet

On November 10, 2007, LLDF held its fourteenth annual banquet. Once again the venue was the beautiful and historic Bellevue Club on the east shore of Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. The evening began with an invocation by Fr. Emmerich Vogt, O.P. Following the invocation, LLDF president John Streett welcomed the guests and introduced the board members. John served as master of ceremonies for the evening.

In addition to the featured speaker, the annual “Year in Review” report has become a popular feature of the banquet. This year the report was delivered by LLDF Legal Director Katie Short. With her dry and self-deprecating wit, Katie gave a broad summary of the many and varied types of pro-life cases and causes in which LLDF and its pro bono attorneys had participated during the past year. She concluded with one particularly close to her heart: “The Board has kindly allowed me to talk for a couple of minutes about my hobby. Some people collect stamps. Some throw pottery. I do initiatives.” Katie briefly described the latest parental notification initiative taking shape in the State of California.

LLDF Executive Director Dana Cody then reported on the success of a seminar that had taken place the previous day, co-sponsored by LLDF and The Center for Bioethics and Culture. The seminar, entitled “Trading on the Female Body”, explored the impact of egg harvesting and cloning on women’s health. Jennifer Lahl, National Director of The Center for Bioethics and the Culture, followed Dana with some high-energy words of encouragement and an apparently impromptu but likewise spirited fundraising appeal on behalf of LLDF.

The featured speaker of the evening was David Prentice, Ph.D., Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. Dr. Prentice gave a lively and frequently humorous presentation on a subject about which he is clearly very serious: embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). “The problem with the stem cell and cloning bioethics debate,” he began, “is the tremendous amount of misinformation out there.”

After providing a brief refresher course on stem cell biology, Dr. Prentice stated the basic issue succinctly: “You have to kill the embryo to get the embryonic stem cells to put in the dish for experiment—no two ways about it. Right away there’s a big problem: you have to destroy a human life.” It should come as no surprise to seasoned pro-life advocates that many people are impervious to what should be a conclusive moral argument such as this. Dr. Prentice gave as an example a former colleague of his who simply replied, “Well, science is my god.” So the battle must be joined at that level as well. The first task is to clear away the many myths which have grown up around the issue of ESCR, whereby people can deny, excuse, justify or promote it. As Dr. Prentice went on to demonstrate, the “conventional wisdom” is wrong on virtually every issue in the ESCR debate.

1) Myth: “ESCR is a new science.”

Fact: Scientists have been doing ESCR for over twenty-five years.

2) Myth: “They can make every cell in the body, so cures are right around the corner.”

Fact: ESCR is an inefficient science. It is difficult to get the cells to grow in a dish, and there are problems controlling differentiation and proliferation (tumors). Unlike adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells have led to no cures, and there are none to be expected in the foreseeable future.

3) Myth: “There is a ban on ESCR in the U.S.”

Fact: Over $1,000,000,000 in taxpayer dollars has gone to fund ESCR in the U.S.

4) Myth: “The U.S. is falling behind in ESCR. We have been the world leaders in science and we have to keep moving ahead with ESCR.”

Fact: Since at least 1998, the U.S. has led the world in publications on all stem cell research. Almost half of all those publications are from the U.S. Publications from 17 other countries comprise the other half.

5) Myth: “ESCR will produce a huge economic benefit.”

Fact: ESCR is more likely to be a huge money loser. Take California as an example. With the passage of Proposition 71, the State was authorized to sell more than $3 billion in general obligation bonds. Repayment of the bonds will cost the taxpayers about $6 billion over 30 years. California’s total royalties could be as low as $18 million, or just 0.06% of its $3 billion investment.

6) Myth: “Thousands of frozen embryos in the fertility clinics are thrown away every day. We should at least get some good out of them.”

Fact: We do have a lot of embryos—400,000 according to a recent study. But it is not true that thousands are being thrown away, or that they should be. They can and should be adopted through programs such as the Snowflake Embryo Adoption Program (snowflakes.org).

7) Myth: “Cloning doesn’t make an embryo.”

Fact: Cloning, also known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer” (SCNT) is the process by which the scientist transfers the nucleus (chromosomes) of a body cell into an egg that has had its chromosomes removed. The result is a one-celled embryo—a new life.

8) Myth: “Reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning are not the same thing.”

Fact: The only difference is that with reproductive cloning you get a live clone (e.g., Dolly the sheep) whereas with “therapeutic cloning” you break the embryo apart, harvest the cells and put them in a dish for experiment. It’s not therapeutic for the embryo—the embryo dies. And there are no “therapies” from therapeutic cloning.

9) Myth: “Using cells from clones will solve the transplant rejection problem.”

Fact: This procedure has failed in experiments with mice. The mice rejected their cloned cells.

10) Myth: “Only a few religious zealots are against cloning embryonic stem cells.”

Fact: France, Germany, Canada, Norway, Switzerland and even the United Nations have all passed legislation (or U.N. resolution) against all human cloning.

An especially important fact, said Dr. Prentice, is that it is the adult stem cells that are already treating patients, not rats and mice. There are over 70 different diseases and injuries in which human patients have already been helped, numbering over 400,000 patients around the globe. Adult stem cells have improved the health of patients with heart damage, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injury. If we really wanted to consider the needs of the patients first, said Dr. Prentice, we would be focusing all of our resources on this successful, ethical, and lifesaving adult stem cell research.

Much of the discussion at the beginning of this, the so-called “Bio-tech Century”, is currently focused on adult stem cell versus embryonic stem cell research. However, new applications will be found for the emerging stem cell technology, and these applications will continue to give rise to moral and ethical issues: cloning organ donors without brains (so they can’t be called human), creating human embryos for research, patenting human lives, genetic engineering (“designer babies”), creating human/animal hybrids, etc. According to Dr. Prentice, the real questions are going to come down to: “What does it mean to be human? Who is going to count? To whom will we chose to assign value?”

Dr. Prentice closed his remarks with a call to action. Understanding the mythology that pervades the embryonic stem cell research debate is only a start.

“You’ve got to do something about it”, Dr. Prentice urged.

“It might just be writing a letter to the editor challenging these stories. It might be just telling a few friends and colleagues. It might be calling or writing your legislators. You’ve got to get involved in the fight, because this is a critical moment in human history.”

[Less than two weeks after Dr. Prentice’s talk, two respected scientific journals carried reports of a major breakthrough in stem cell research. Researchers have discovered a way to remodel adult stem cells so that they are functionally identical to embryonic stem cells. No embryos are generated or destroyed in the process.