September 30, 2005

Fetus Farming Fears

Robert P. George

The journal Science late last month published the results of research conducted at Harvard proving that embryonic stem cells can be produced by a method that does not involve creating or destroying a living human embryo. Additional progress will be required to perfect this technique of stem cell production, but few seriously doubt that it will be perfected, and many agree that this can be accomplished in the relatively near future. At the same time, important breakthroughs have been announced by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Texas demonstrating that cells derived harmlessly from placental tissue and umbilical cord blood can be induced to exhibit the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells. ("Pluripotency" is the potential of a cell to develop into multiple types of mature cells.)

One would expect that advocates of embryonic stem cell research would be delighted by these developments. After all, they point to uncontroversial ways to obtain embryonic stem cells or their exact equivalent and to create new stem cell lines that are (unlike lines created by destroying embryos) immediately eligible for federal funding. Yet some advocates seem to be unhappy at the news. Why?

The likely answer is ominous.

George says it's because the biotechnology industry is not just interested in embryonic stem cells for use in research for fighting diseases. They have also invested heavily in promoting legislation encouraging development of a business enterprise in "fetus farming", described by George as "an industry in harvesting late embryonic and fetal body parts for use in regenerative medicine and organ transplantation." He advocates legislation now, before the American public stops being revolted by such an idea, as they are today:

The ideal legislation to protect human life and preserve public moral sensibilities would ban all production of human embryos for research in which they are destroyed. Unfortunately, Congress is not prepared to pass such legislation. Indeed, a bill passed by the House of Representatives to ban the production of human embryos, for any purpose, by cloning has been stymied in the Senate. (In this one instance, many American liberals decline to follow the lead of Europe--where many jurisdictions ban all human cloning, including the creation of embryos by cloning for biomedical research--or of the United Nations General Assembly, which has called for a complete cloning ban.) So what can be done?

One possibility is to make a pre-emptive strike against fetus farming by banning the initiation of any pregnancy (whether in a human uterus or artificial womb) for purposes other than the live birth of a child. This has been recommended by the President's Council on Bioethics. Another possible approach would be to add to the safeguards already in the U.S. Code on fetal tissue, stating that it is unlawful for anyone to use, or engage in interstate commerce in, such tissue when the person knows that the pregnancy was initiated in order to produce this tissue. An effective strategy would eliminate what would otherwise almost certainly emerge as a powerful incentive for the production of thousands of embryos that would be destroyed in perfecting and practicing cloning and fetal farming.

Posted by dan at September 30, 2005 11:42 PM