Scholarly Smackdown: The Stem Cell Debate

Two ethical scholars plunge into the scientific and moral divide over embryonic stem cell research.

BY: With Ronald M. Green and Nigel Cameron


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Nigel Cameron makes several factual assertions I wish to correct.

Cameron says:

"There are in fact no restrictions in federal law on embryo research."

Fact: In 1996, and for every year since, Republican-dominated Congresses have passed what is known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment to the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services. This amendment prohibits federal funding for human-embryo research. Specifically, it prohibits funding for "the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes" as well as "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero" under existing federal regulations.

By virtue of this amendment, human embryos actually receive more protection in federal legislation than do born children. It is true that it does not prohibit embryo research funded by private sources. But the importance of federal funding in start-up areas is well known. If progress in understanding the causes of miscarriages has been significantly slowed, if an infertile couple must mortgage their home in order to try to have a baby through inefficient and costly infertility procedures, if the United States is becoming a backwater in stem cell research, blame Dickey-Wicker.

Cameron says:

"For better or for worse, President Clinton did not spend one dollar of taxpayer's money on embryo research."

This statement is entirely misleading. Under Clinton, the NIH formed a panel in 1994 (on which I served) that recommended federal support for human embryo research, including research on embryonic stem cells. If the panel's advice had been heeded, we might be five years ahead in this research. President Clinton accepted almost all of our recommendations, but the Gingrich Congress and Dickey-Wicker shut everything down.

Cameron notes that Canada has outlawed research cloning in March as have France, Germany, Australia and Norway.

"Which of these nations,"

Cameron asks,

"is ruled by the 'theology of the few'? Does the power of the U.S. pro-life movement and what Ron Green calls its 'extremism' extend to the governments in Ottawa and Canberra, and the whole of 'Old Europe'?"

Yes. If Nigel looks carefully at the religious demography of his "world tour," he will find that in virtually every constituency he mentions, the prohibition on embryo research is carried by Roman Catholic and/or (conservative) Protestant groups--the same groups that now drive U.S. law and policy. A possible exception here is Germany, whose Catholic citizens are supplemented in this effort by many still haunted by Nazi eugenics. (The German law for the Protection of Embryos is one of the strictest in Europe.)

In contrast, in Great Britain, where a middle-of-the-road Protestant culture predominates, embryo research, including research on therapeutic cloning, is both legal and governmentally funded. In nations like India, China, Singapore, Korea, Israel, and India, where there are no substantial Catholic or conservative Protestant populations, this research is moving swiftly forward.

It is commonly said that stem cell research opponents are wrong to try to impose their theology--a "theology of the few"--on everyone else. That is true. What's more appalling is that so many of these people do not realize that they are being driven by their personal religious beliefs. Nigel's remarks shows how prevalent is the tendency not to perceive the potent role of parochial religious views in our national debates.

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