Don’t Ignore What an Embryo Is

April 13, 2010 • Posted in Stem Cell Research

Originally published by The Tennessean, Invited Opinion, 12/31/2008 (used by permission)

Change is today’s political buzzword.  President-elect Obama has promised lots of change.  One change anticipated is an executive order authorizing funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).  Why? Private, state, and limited federal monies are already being used.  Since the hoped-for cures have not materialized, more is demanded: more money and more embryos.  Looking to the deep pockets of the NIH for a decade, embryonic stem cell researchers, joined by various celebrities, continue to extend their hands for additional tax-dollars

Embryonic stem cell research has been going on for a long time.  I attended a “25 Years of Stem Cells” conference at Cambridge in 2006.  At that meeting, Bob Edwards (of Steptoe-Edwards, first test-tube-baby fame) said, “We can’t be frightened of going to human embryos.”  He, like others pushing ESCR, wants to be able to dissect the human embryo with impunity.  Since that conference, induced pluripotent cells (iPS)—embryonic-like stem cells formed without destroying embryos—have been produced.  James Thomson, who originally reported human ESC culture in 1998, sees iPS as the future. (  Likewise, Ian Wilmut, famous for cloning “Dolly”, has endorsed iPS over cloning as the way forward. (  Still the clamor for federal funds and human embryos continues.

What happens when we show that we are not afraid of the embryo?  Britain serves as a model trajectory in this case; we don’t have to invent one.  After Louise Joy Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born, Parliament appointed a committee to advise them regarding such affairs.  The Warnock Committee, named for its head, Mary Warnock, refused to acknowledge what the embryo is, but nevertheless advised Parliament to permit research on the embryo, up to 14 days post fertilization, but not to allow cloning.  Change 1:  cloning is now allowed.  Previously, women could not be paid for eggs donated for science. Change 2:  now they can receive deeply discounted infertility services.  Preimplantation genetic testing (to avoid having a child with a disorder) was initially only allowed for fatal disorders.  Change 3:  PGD is now permitted for disorders that might show up in the 3rd-7th decades of life.  Another change is in the offing: PGD for autism. (  Human-animal hybrids were not allowed.  Change 4: human-cow and human-rabbit embryos are now permitted.  Recently, Baroness Warnock proposed that the elderly infirm or demented should be helped out of their families’ misery, as they have “a duty to die.” (  Disrespect for life shown at one point becomes disrespect at every point.

We emulate Britain’s changes at our peril. It is not only the embryos in the lab who will be destroyed.  In using the vulnerable to save those of us not confined to Petri dishes, we are sacrificing more than microscopic cell clumps.  When we use some of us to save the rest of us, we fulfill C.S. Lewis’ description in “The Abolition of Man”:  we are not only the general in the triumphal car, but also the prisoner in chains following behind.   This barbaric change is not one we need.