Many torn by the essence of the controversy over stem cells--which have incredible potential for treating and curing disease but also, so far, have been obtained mainly by destroying embryos--have pinned their hopes on the adult-cell prospect. If stem cells could be drawn from grown men and women rather than from embryonic tissue, the moral issues would seem to go away.

Stem Cell Debate

  • The Surprising Politics of Stem Cell Research:
    Analysis of the ABCNews/Beliefnet poll
  • Results of the Poll
  • Why Pro-Lifers Are Against Stem Cell Research By Gary Bauer
  • Where Do Embryos Come From?
    Asking the right questions about fertility clinics
  • Religious Leaders Weigh In
  • What do you think? Discuss
  • Stem Cell Research Links
  • "I believe there are some wonderful opportunities for adult stem cell research," President George W. Bush told reporters when first he was asked about this touchy subject. Recently, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, a prominent foe of embryonic stem cells research, declared that he supports "stem cell research--research that is ethical...the stem cell research I am referring to is derived from adults." Catholics, evangelicals, and others who oppose embryonic stem cell research--and are urging Bush to deny any federal support for same--point to adult stem cells as the resolution of the issue.

    This sounds great, but adult stem cells may not necessarily solve the moral issue at all. In fact, they could make it more troubling, because the one technique so far known to produce significant numbers of such cells functions by creating an entirely new class of biological object--the artificial embryo. Late yesterday (July 11), Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) of Massachusetts, the leader in adult stem cell research, announced it had deliberately created artificial embryos and then cloned them as sources of stem cells.

    Initial media attention to this announcement--the second big stem cells announcement in as many days, following the news that the Jones Institute fertility clinic had created natural embryos solely as stem cell sources--was garbled. Initial reports fixated on the word "cloned," because ACT duplicated the embryos it made. But cloning at the cellular level is routine in medical research--and in our bodies. It's the phrase "artificial embryo" that should have caught everyone's eyes.

    In a 1999 interview, James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, the first scientist to isolate human embryonic stem cells, told me why the adult stem cells technique was troubling: "It would solve one ethical problem but it might create another, because it might lead to a totally artificial kind of viable embryo."

    What ACT has done is artificially fashion a cell cluster that could become a person, then use that cluster to form a stem cell "line," or reproducing cell source. The kind of life possessed by natural embryos (or embryos formed with assistance in fertility clinics) may or may not be sacred and inviolate.

    But now the natural embryo has been joined by the artificial embryo, and what kind of life or rights does it possess?

    This is why the adult-derived stem cell may not necessarily be the solution to stem cell controversies. It may open the door to things even spookier than what opponents worry about now.