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The Personal Sides of the Stem Cell Debate

Science: Advocates and opponents of embryonic research make their cases on the Hill.

July 18, 2001|ANUJ GUPTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — John Borden theatrically clutched his twin 9-month-old sons, Mark and Luke, as he stood before members of Congress on Tuesday, while his wife, Lucinda, displayed a picture of the two embryos--obtained from donor parents--that had developed into the boys.

"Which one of my children would you kill?" the Fontana, Calif., resident demanded.

Just hours earlier, in front of the Capitol, 12-year-old Jackie Singer stood in front of cameras and microphones beside her twin sister, Molly, who has juvenile diabetes, and said, "All Molly wants to do is live a normal, healthy life."

Borden's dramatic challenge and Jackie Singer's powerful plea reflect the extraordinary human stories at the core of both sides of a debate rooted in complex, groundbreaking science: whether the federal government should fund embryonic stem cell research in pursuit of treatments for a wide range of diseases.

The emotional comments came as details of a new National Institutes of Health report became available that highlighted the promise of both embryo-derived and adult stem cells but which pointed to several important limitations of the adult cells.

As all parties await a decision from President Bush--who is said to be personally wrestling with the issue--the debate heated up on Capitol Hill. Parents who had obtained children as embryos denounced the research as genocide in testimony Tuesday before a House panel, while a group of lawmakers and patients urged the Bush administration to authorize federal funding.

Bush is expected to announce within the next few weeks whether he will lift a temporary suspension he placed on a plan by the National Institutes of Health to fund research using embryonic stem cells, which can potentially grow into any type of cell or tissue in the body.

Members of a House Government Reform subcommittee gave conflicting opinions during the hearing about the ethics of obtaining stem cells from frozen embryos that are left over from the in vitro fertilization process. Much of the debate centered on the critical question of whether the embryos--which must be destroyed in order for stem cells to be extracted--constitute human lives.

"These littlest of human beings aren't potential life but life with vast potential," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.). "I find it offensive . . . to label human embryos as excess or spare or expendable."

Subcommittee Chairman Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.) cited "a moral obligation to explore and exhaust every available ethical alternative" to embryonic research as he pushed for adult stem cell research. Studies of adult cells have produced some breakthroughs, although many scientists say the cells do not offer the enormous potential for discoveries that the embryonic cells do.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) countered that embryonic cells must not be protected at the expense of the potential that lies in the research, which scientists have said could produce treatments for ailments such as diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

"I do not believe that the government should abandon potentially lifesaving research in order to give a cell--a special cell, but only a cell--the same rights and protections as a person," Waxman said.

Lucinda Borden and Marlene Strege of Fallbrook, Calif., who also bore a child that originated as a donated embryo, told the subcommittee that their children are proof that the embryos being stored in what they called "frozen orphanages" are much more than balls of cells.

"[My daughter] is an ambassador for the roughly 188,000 frozen human embryos like her . . . who could be adopted rather than terminated," said Strege, displaying a timeline with photographs of her now 28-month-old daughter, Hannah, in several stages of embryonic development.

Proponents of the research maintained, however, that the practice does not represent a termination of human life and should not be likened to abortion.

"The support of embryonic stem cell research is consistent with pro-life and pro-family values," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a staunchly anti-abortion Utah Republican who is a politically vital advocate of the practice.

Hatch said that, despite claims made by foes of the research, tens of thousands of excess frozen embryos are routinely discarded. "Why shouldn't these embryos slated for destruction be used for the good of mankind?" Hatch asked.

At a news conference preceding the hearing, Hatch was joined by Senate and House colleagues from both parties in calling upon Bush to green-light federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which is legal and already ongoing in the private sector.

The legislators were joined at the event by a number of disease victims, including diabetic Molly Singer. They cited an array of incurable ailments--including Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's disease and breast cancer--in demanding that the administration exploit the medical potential of embryonic stem cells.

The new NIH study, a survey of stem cell researchers and of 1,200 reports in scientific journals, had been requested by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson as part of the Bush administration's review of stem cell policy.

The report said that both adult and embryo stem cells have the capacity to turn into other, more specialized types of cells, raising hopes that they might one day be used to produce replacement tissue for patients.

The report found that embryonic stem cells seem to reproduce endlessly so that a single cell gives rise to millions of identical sisters. Adult cells, by contrast, often quickly lose their ability to produce a large number of unspecialized cells. The NIH report calls this an "important limiting factor" in turning adult cells into specialized replacement tissue for patients.

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Times staff writer Aaron Zitner contributed to this story.

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