Myths cloud debate over stem cell use


CHICAGO - By now, we all know the crucial question about embryonic stem cell research. Advocates have put it plainly: Should we let unused frozen embryos residing in fertility clinics be dumped down the drain, or should we use them to cure diabetes, Alzheimer's, paralysis and other health scourges?

Confronted with that question, the House voted last month to provide federal funding for experimentation on these embryos, despite the threat of a presidential veto. As Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia put it, the only embryos that would be destroyed for medical research are those that "would otherwise be destroyed. That is, embryos that held the promise of life but are certain not to fulfill that promise."

It's a persuasive argument that many well-meaning people find hard to reject - but one that is constructed almost entirely out of myths. The choice we face is one very different from that portrayed by its advocates.

Start with the claim that 400,000 frozen embryos otherwise would go to waste. The truth is that most of them are anything but "surplus." According to a 2003 survey by the RAND Corp., 88 percent of the embryos are being stored for their original function: to make babies for their parents. Just 2.2 percent of the embryos have been designated for disposal, and less than 3 percent for research. The latter group amounts to about 11,000 embryos.

When the president had a White House event hosting parents who adopted embryos from fertility clinics, his critics ridiculed the suggestion that this approach could accommodate 400,000 embryos. Finding parents for 11,000 embryos, however, is not so far-fetched. Every year, 125,000 adoptions take place in this country.

In that case, Mr. Bush's solution doesn't sound implausible at all. As a recent article in the online magazine Slate noted, embryo adoption "is a thriving business these days, for many reasons. For one thing, donated embryos are cheap" - cheaper than in vitro fertilization, cheaper than conventional adoption. In addition, the idea has caught on among "pro-life" Christians who feel a religious duty to help save these embryos.

What's more surprising is that the House bill may not make use of these "excess" embryos. It says parents must elect to discard them "prior to the consideration of embryo donation" and only later decide to donate them for research.

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says none of the embryos in storage qualifies under this standard. Why? Because clinics don't structure their consent process that way. Almost all of them ask parents to decide from several choices at the outset, before any embryos have been created. Clinics can adopt this new two-step procedure, of course, but it would affect only future embryos, which defeats the supposed point of the bill.

The biggest myth, though, is that scientists would be content with using existing, leftover embryos. The 11,000 embryos, according to the RAND study, would yield no more than 275 stem cell lines. For the task of curing major diseases, an article in Scientific American last year said "hundreds of thousands" of lines may be needed - which "could require millions of discarded embryos."

So what would advocates of embryonic stem cell research do when their needs exceeded the supply? They would ask for government subsidies to produce additional embryos for experimentation.

Actually, that's not what they would do - it's what they've already done. Last year, California voters approved $3 billion in state funding for stem cell research, including experiments on embryos created through "therapeutic cloning."

So why have the advocates pushed for the much narrower federal bill passed by the House? Because they want Americans to get used to the idea of destroying human embryos in research. Then it will be a small step to get the public to accept what they really want - creating human life in order to destroy it.

Maybe most Americans will support creating vast farms of tiny embryos that will be culled like cattle for their stem cells. But if that's where this train is going, we ought to know it before we get on board.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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