Leave no embryo behind!

Dissecting the messy politics of stem-cell research.

AFTER THE WE CARE/Family Services fertility clinic in Yakima, Wash., was broken into during a nighttime raid on July 17, Life for All, a direct-action protest outfit, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the break-in. Terry Ranson, the group's spokesperson, declared Life for All had "rescued" 14 frozen embryos that had been created in vitro and were to be discarded because they were no longer needed by couples who had been clients of the clinic.

"These pre-unborn children will be placed in the wombs of volunteers and—God willing—carried to term," Ranson said. "We believe life begins at conception, and we are happy to save little babies-that-could-be from the clutches of the mass murderers at people-breeding clinics—for-profit criminal doctors who first tell couples to produce numerous fertilized eggs, knowing that many will never be implanted in a woman's womb, and who then callously throw out these unused embryos. We encourage citizens throughout our country to join our campaign to save the lives of the thousands of pre-unborn children held hostage in clinics across the nation, to liberate—nonviolently, if possible—the frozen embryos that are scheduled for execution, and to recruit women who can provide these children-to-be with their God-given right of existence."

No, the above did not happen. There was no such break-in. There is no such group as Life for All—as far as I know. But if the opponents of embryonic stem-cell research are serious and truly believe their own arguments, they ought to be conducting (or encouraging) actions of this sort.

In fact, on Tuesday, John and Lucinda Borden, who adopted their twin sons originally as embryos through a Christian adoption agency, testified before Congress and urged President George W. Bush to stop embryo research. Their testimony is just the latest example of frozen embryos making news. In the coming days, Bush has to decide a knotty issue: whether or not to permit federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Bush's lieutenants have been telling reporters throughout Washington, D.C.—off the record—that the president has been agonizing over this decision. But the matter is only vexing because of political considerations.

Stem cells are supercells that can turn into a variety of other cells. The scientific community consensus is that research employing stem cells derived from the earliest of embryos may assist those seeking cures and treatments for a host of awful illnesses, including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and cancer [for more on the scientific aspect of embryonic research, see "Fetus Fight," Seattle Weekly, July 12].

Where does a researcher find embryonic stem cells? The obvious answer: frozen embryos in fertility clinics that otherwise would be tossed [see accompanying story, p. 23]. When pregnancy-challenged couples seek the assistance of such facilities, the experts there often take several eggs from the woman and, using the sperm of the fellow, create a number of fertilized eggs in vitro. If the couple get lucky on the first go, or even the second or third—and the fertilized egg inserted into the woman develops into a fetus and then a baby—there are leftover zygotes.

With the parents' permission, stem cells can be removed from these embryos and used in the fight against numerous diseases. But by-the-book Catholics and other fundamentalists who believe life begins at conception—wherever that conception might occur—despise the practice, for it entails destroying the embryo. And that, to them, is the taking of human life.

So Bush has to decide whether to ignore the scientific community and anger people wrestling with these awful illnesses, or to piss off the Catholic leadership and die-hard anti-abortion advocates who believe it wrong to break up a ready-to-go embryo. Catering to Catholics is high on the to-do list of Karl Rove, Bush's master planner; Rove is pursuing a political strategy that aims to cement Catholic voters—who tend to vote more Democratic than Republican—within the Republican coalition.

REFRESHINGLY, THE POLITICS of this controversy are fuzzier—and more interesting—than those of the abortion debate, for several prominent conservatives who oppose abortion have been beseeching Bush to allow federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. Leading the pack is Senator Orrin Hatch. He has been joined by former Senator Connie Mack, who has been treated for cancer, and Senator Strom Thurmond, whose body is probably still producing original stem cells (how else to explain it?). Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson is another abortion foe who backs embryonic stem-cell research. And Nancy Reagan, whose husband has been stricken by Alzheimer's, has also lobbied Bush in favor of the research.

In a 10-page memo Hatch wrote for Bush—how optimistic of Hatch—the senator unfurled his anti-abortion credentials (he proposed, for example, a constitutional amendment that would permit Congress and the states to outlaw abortion), but he noted that in his mind there is a huge difference between "a frozen embryo stored in a refrigerator" and "an embryo or fetus developing in a mother's womb." After all, the former "will never complete the journey toward birth." To consider an embryo a "constitutionally protected person," Hatch wrote, would mean that "the use of contraceptive devices that impede fertilized eggs from attaching onto the uterine wall could be considered a criminal act" and "the routine act of discarding 'spare' frozen embryos could be transformed into an act of murder."

That's an intriguing distinction Hatch is making. A woman is free to do what she wants with an embryo outside her body, but she has no choice when an embryo is inside her body. His argument is that an in-the-womb embryo is on its way to personhood, while "a frozen embryo is more akin to a frozen or unfertilized egg or frozen sperm." But his formulation begs the question of what the moral difference is between trashing an embryo in a petri dish and aborting a just-fertilized egg in the womb: Is there a religious or ethical principle at stake? Does God favor one embryo over another?

Nevertheless, a cheer or two for Hatch for not lining up with the anti-abortion, conception-equals-life diehards, such as House Republican leaders Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and J.C. Watts, who are urging Bush to block federal involvement in embryonic stem-cell research. The work of Hatch, Mack, Thompson, and their allies has undermined the religious right's campaign against embryonic stem-cell research. But it ought to be noted that Hatch and company are picking and choosing the embryos they would like to see protected—a point that should not be lost in future abortion debates.

The fundamentalists can boast a more consistent position. Consider the argument of Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and one of the chief crusaders against abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. "The central question in this debate," he says, "is simple: Is the embryo a person or a piece of property? If you believe . . . that life begins at conception and that the human embryo is a person fully deserving of dignity and the protection of our laws, then you believe that we must protect this innocent life from harm and destruction." In other words, all embryos are equal and deserve safeguarding. You don't destroy one in a lab, you don't destroy one in a womb.

Brownback offers a public service by displaying the extremism readily found within the anti-abortion camp. Let's grant him—for a moment—his point that an embryo, no matter its origin, is sacred and ought to be defended from harm. Then what must be done with the thousands of leftover embryos in fertility clinics? Must they be kept frozen and intact for all time? Who bears this responsibility? The clinics? The couples? The government? Should there be a federal depository for all test-tube embryos not being used for procreation? Perhaps the same crew charged with looking after nuclear waste for tens of thousands of year could watch over them.

Take a few steps further along this what-if path. Should these embryos be given names, provided Social Security numbers, assigned birth dates—or conception dates? ("Happy C-day to you.") Who will pay for the maintenance of the frozen embryos? Will a couple that tends a leftover embryo qualify for a pre-child tax credit? If a couple walks away from such a responsibility, can the pair be charged with embryo-abandonment? Could Congress pass a law compelling couples to only create fertilized eggs in vitro one at a time? Could Congress force women to carry spare embryos to term? Should Congress ban all fertility techniques that yield extra embryos? If a fertilized egg perishes within a clinic, should there be a homicide—or embrycide—investigation?

Brownback and his comrades want embryos equated with humans. So let them mount their rescue operations—are they committed to this position or not?—and let them answer some of the above questions. They likely cannot do either without appearing absurd to the majority of Americans, who are less theologically driven and who do not favor either a ban on abortion or a ban on embryonic stem-cell research.

Bush is in a jam only because he wants to placate the leave-no-embryo-behind crowd. His aides say he is seeking— desperately, no doubt—a compromise. But there isn't much middle ground to exploit. Will the save-our-embryos opponents be satisfied if he limits the number of embryos federal scientists are permitted to destroy, or if he allows government-funded researchers to use embryonic stem cells only if they are extracted by nongovernment parties? They opposition shouldn't be content with either of these two options, for either would still signal federal approval of embryo dismemberment.

Will Bush put politics ahead of a research program that has the potential to alleviate the suffering of millions of embryos-turned-humans? If he does, he ought to be aware of where such a road leads: federal protection of made-in-the-lab embryos.

info@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus