Holy Zygotes!

Get ready for the political clash over stem cell research restrictions


"If you find an issue on which the Southern Baptists and United Methodists agree," Dr. Nigel M. de S. Cameron declared at the Brookings Institution in early May, "it seems that you have a sound basis for public policy." The occasion for Cameron's observation was a panel, sponsored by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, titled "Human Cloning: Religious Perspectives." The only person on the six-person panel who disagreed was a rabbi. Go figure.

If it's up to a majority vote of the religions represented on the panel–Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, and Statism–a human clone won't be coming soon to a nursery near you. And don't hold your breath waiting for treatments for heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and other diseases if they require stem cells from made-to-order embryos.

For those who don't subscribe to Cell and stopped paying attention in 8th grade biology class after the fetal pig was fully dissected, stem cells are cells derived from early stage embryos. Stem cells can be potentially transformed into any tissue in the human body, such as liver cells, heart cells, or neurons. As such, they are potentially useful for repairing damaged organs. Scientists currently rely on surplus embryos from fertility clinics to supply their research. But they hope in the future to be able to create immunologically compatible tissues by cloning embryos using the nuclei from patients' own cells. That requires the creation of embryos specifically for this purpose.

Which raises the ire of the anti-abortion crowd. While actual human cloning research has long been decried by the feds, research on stem cells for therapeutic purposes enjoyed tacit support from the Clinton administration. That's changed now that the Republicans are in charge of all three branches of federal government.

Conservatives are going after stem cell research, claiming that "it's not therapeutic for the embryo." The Bush administration has already quashed plans for the National Institutes of Health to fund stem cell research, not out of general limited-government principles, but because of the specific activity being undertaken.

There's also a significant move to kill all private research. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has introduced a bill to prohibit stem cell research on any stem cells created especially for research—even stem cells created only for "therapeutic" research. Brownback and other anti-cloners are concerned that once embryos are created, they will eventually find their ways into wombs. And once that happens, the choices will be stark: either force abortions or allow human clones to be born.

Because it laid out the terms of the stem cell debate so clearly, the panel at Brookings was illuminating. The ethical debate over cloning research, it turns out, is not only a debate between secular scientists and people of faith. It's also a debate among different faiths. On Dr. Cameron's testimony, Christianity all boils down to a zygote, which is the just-fertilized egg before it starts dividing into multiple cells and becomes an embryo, a process that typically takes a day. "The supreme Christian belief is that of the incarnation," he helpfully pointed out to the non-Christians in the audience. "That did not take place, despite what Christmas cards tell us, in a stable, but when Mary conceived. If lord became man in a zygote, then we have every reason to oppose [the creation of embryos for scientific research.]"

Sen. Brownback had been scheduled to be the star of the Brookings show, but he begged off at the last minute and sent a staffer instead. A dapper young fellow, the staffer achieved a sort of Drew Carey Goes to Washington effect, sitting upright, hair slicked back, a white hanky peaking out of his gray suit pocket. He spoke of the "commodification of human life" and maintained that prohibiting the cloning of all embryos is necessary. "It's narrowly crafted," he said of the law. "The only thing this law doesn't allow is the creation of a human embryo."

This last point was not uncontroversial. "The personhood of a zygote, the egg just entered by the sperm, has nothing to do with the cloning debate," said Rabbi Moses D. Tendler, an expert on Jewish medical ethics, who proclaimed to speak on behalf of "unmodified Jews," more commonly known as Orthodox Jews. "I think it should be understood that not all religions, even the Catholic until recently, endorsed the strange notion that a zygote lining a petri dish is a human." Tendler placed the day of official personhood at 40.

He pointed out that the famous admonition "be fruitful and multiply," also contains a command to master the world. "Part of man's obligation is to make the world a better place; that is why we circumcise, to make man a little better," said Tendler. "Stem cell research is the hope of mankind," the rabbi declared, before calling Brownback's bill "an evil being perpetrated on America."

Brownback's messenger boy was taken aback. He had announced early on that he'd be cutting out early to get to other important business (a standard tactic used by members of Congress and their henchmen to avoid other people's contributions to boring panels). But Brownback's staffer decided to stay and do battle with the wayward rabbi. He accused embryonic stem proponents such as Tendler of wanting to "create a human being that you kill for its parts." He asked the rabbi what he thought about harvesting organs from death row inmates in China, implying that this is the same thing as creating embryos for research.

"The harvesting of organs in China has as much to do with our discussion as the price of tea in China does," the rabbi fired back. "To abort stem cell research is a far bigger sin than to abort a zygote, which doesn't have [the status] of human life by most religions."

"That's ridiculous!," a voice soon erupted from the back of the room. The panel had managed to generate spontaneous and uncontrolled audience participation. That's not something that happens everyday at the intersection of science and public policy. But considering that this debate hinges more on religious beliefs than laboratory results, expect more shouting on all sides as Brownback and others forge ahead to restrict stem cell research.