(One of the things I am most proud of in my relatively pedestrian political career is a memo I wrote to clients and friends on Capitol Hill concerning stem cell research back in 2006. I was told by a friend in Congress that it got pretty wide informal circulation in both caucuses – and that it played a significant role in ending the left trying to use Embryonic Stem Cell (ESC) Research as a cudgel against conservatives after 2006.
One woman who was on the board of directors at a research hospital – and leaned left – called me about it. She told me her Congressman showed it to her to get her take on it – and that she got my phone number from him. I thought she was going to argue with me, but she was ecstatic over what I had produced. She said that their hospital raised money by touting ESCs – it was the ‘sexy’ thing that drew out the donors…but that all the serious work was done with Adult Stem Cells (ASC) because that was the only avenue producing usable results. She described herself as pro-choice, but claimed to be horrified that the myths about ESCs were simply being used as a stalking horse for abortion – especially when so many people needed help and ASCs were the only real hope.
I carefully vetted this Memo. I had a prominent Canon Lawyer, a Constitutional Lawyer who heads a prominent national foundation, and a micro-biologist who had published extensively on the subject examine it for any errors in theology, law, and the science involved. I was absurdly pleased when, after reviewing it, the microbiologist asked me where I taught. She would not believe I had no background in the field, but was just a pretty good and thorough researcher.
Now this issue is being raised again in races across the country. I thought you might like to know the facts behind the rhetoric. I contemplated editing it for this website, but decided it was best that you see it exactly as I wrote it then. Keep in mind this was an internal political memo, so it is written in a secular fashion. Also, I worked as a Republican operative – and this was directed to people in the Republican delegation, so it has a much blunter political dimension than I would use if I weren’t printing it exactly as I wrote it. Also, the Vatican did issue a much blunter condemnation of in vitro fertilization in December of 2008, two and a half years after this memo was issued. Given the political climate and that this is being raised again, I thought you might like to have the facts – so you can blow away anyone who claims you are anti-science when they let their own ideology cynically trump the facts. Here, then, the memo exactly as it appeared eight years ago – with a few parenthetical notes.)
Confidential Memo on Embryonic Stem Cell Research
From: Charlie Johnston
To: Clients and Friends
Date: July 26, 2006
The Democrats are convinced they have found a significant Achilles Heel on our approach to stem cell research. If we do not properly frame this issue, they may be right. More importantly, if we do not frame it properly now it is going to be a heavy-pressure issue for years to come and could become, particularly for pro-lifers, the same sort of setback that advocacy of partial-birth abortion was for pro-abortion activists.
The facts are on our side. In fact, devoting resources to embryonic stem-cell research (ESC) at this period of development would be a set-back rather than an advance in finding cures for debilitating diseases. The reason is that it directs resources away from adult stem-cell research (ASC) which is already responsible for over 70 promising human therapies. But explaining this certainly does not pack the power of “You cruel Republicans are denying me a cure.” The answer is in first framing the issue properly and then having sufficient background knowledge to stand examination. I am pro-life and opposed to embryonic stem-cell research, but I think we are making a serious mistake by framing this issue primarily around the moral issue first and the practical issue second. The practical issue is compelling – and that is where we should lead from. Though Americans are largely secularized, we are still fundamentally a compassionate people. If we continue to lead from the moral argument, it undermines our claim to morality among secularized Americans, as it makes us seem to condemn suffering people to death in defense of a principle involving an embryo. Pro-abortion advocates’ insistence that the principle of a “right-to-choose” trumped the agonizing execution of what was visibly a real baby in the partial-birth abortion debate changed the landscape a decade ago – to our advantage and their disadvantage. This time, as then, we have the better of the argument, but we have to be a lot more sophisticated and disciplined in making our case.
Following is a brief overview of the relevant issues involved, followed by (in italics) a suggested policy statement:
The song of the siren for ESC is what is called the cells’ pluripotency – that is, their potential to become any sort of human tissue. It is what has fired the imaginations of many health advocacy groups and some scientists. Certainly one can understand their enthusiasm in the abstract. But they are not letting a lot of very cold, hard facts get in the way of their hope and, in the process, are doing a lot of damage to people who really do need help.
First, the cold hard facts:
- Typically, scientific protocols require positive evidence of promise from animal studies before beginning human experimentation. We have engaged in unrestricted research on animal embryos for a quarter of a century now – with no progress in treating animal or human disease. Advocates of human ESC are not demanding that we follow the science, but that we make an exception to standard scientific protocols to pursue what is almost certainly a chimerical hope.
- The first major problem with ESC is immunology. The body rejects what it identifies as foreign. Unless that problem can be overcome ESCs offer no hope. At best, they could buy time, not a cure. And in the case of cells that are seamlessly integrated into the body’s structure, when rejection comes, how do you separate the tissues that are foreign from those that are not? In this case, rejection would not be a problem to be managed – as in certain organ transplants; it would be a death sentence. ESC research advocates suggest that problem can be surmounted by either using nuclear transfer (NT) technology (cloning) or by having large banks of stem cells typed similar to blood stocks. Cloned animals, using perfectly normal, naturally produced genetic materials, almost invariably produce sickly, abnormal copies. Not terribly reassuring. Typing stem cells would not solve the immunology problem, but simply delay the onset of rejection. But both arguments are irrelevant until the second problem is resolved.
- The second problem – probably the insurmountable one – is embryology. You can’t just put an embryo into a test-tube and watch it turn into a baby. Tumors have stem cells that can turn into almost any type of tissue, but they have no blueprint. Perhaps surprisingly, an embryo in an artificial environment loses its blueprint. It turns out that complex environmental factors are required to properly cue the development of a baby from an embryo. That is, the positioning of the embryonic cells in relation to their embryonic neighbors, electrical fields generated by the mother’s body, mechanical tensions in the womb, and even the positioning and electrical fields associated with the mother’s organs. There are a host of non-molecular or complex structural factors that must be perfectly choreographed for embryos to develop normally with normal tissues. Remember, scientists have been working for 25 years with animal embryos and have made NO significant progress with these non-molecular and structural hurdles.
- The aggressive pluripotency of ESCs is both the source of their promise and, perhaps, the characteristic that must make them ever a siren – luring good men to them only to dash their hopes and careers. While ESCs can become anything, they can’t become anything in particular until they have gone through the complex choreography discussed in item three. But they can be very aggressive about becoming a little bit of everything. If you went to the hospital for a kidney transplant and instead got a mélange of bone, heart, and eye cells that could not function as a kidney but would grow explosively, you would know that was not good medicine. ESCs are far more likely to produce monstrously aggressive undifferentiated tumors than they are to produce normal tissue outside of their natural environment.
- ASCs completely bypass the immunology problem. Further, they bypass the most difficult early hurdles of the embryological problem. They are differentiated by this time. They usually don’t multiply as quickly as ESCs (though some recently isolated ASCs come very close), but they also are much less likely to become tumerous. They might not be able to become just anything, but they can become a normal tissue of the specific thing a patient needs. Some publications have said that ASCs have accounted for 78 promising findings for the treatment of human disease thus far and others have said only 72. (This was as of 2006. For updates on what is current, go here – CJ) What is undeniable is that at least 70 promising therapeutic approaches have been developed through ASCs with only about 10 years of research, whereas 0 – ZERO – effective therapies have been developed through ESCs. And zero effective animal therapies have been developed through animal ESCs despite 25 years of research.
- Finally, one more note to help understand how huge the hurdles are to ESCs…if the incredible hurdles were surmounted, one still has the problem that at early and even intermediate stages, normal tissue is almost indistinguishable from abnormal tissue. The transplant of ESC-developed tissue would be like a perverse fixed lottery. In state lotteries, there are millions of tickets and only one winner. In this lottery, one would be injected with millions of cells – and if any one of them is abnormal, it would taint all the rest of the normal cells. I would love a lottery in which, if anyone won a million dollars, everyone who held a ticket would also win a million. That is the sort of lottery that ESCs offer even IF they solved the first hurdles, but instead of winning a million dollars, you would win a murderously aggressive tumor.
Now to pop a few myths:
- No one is banning ESC research. What President Bush’s veto did was limit the federal funding that can go to it. If Donald Trump or Bill Gates or Ted Turner want to devote their fortunes to ESC research, there is no U.S. law that would stop them. There are substantial private dollars going to ASC research because it has provided useful results. There are almost no private dollars going to ESC research because, after a quarter century of unregulated animal research we have not been able to even cure a single disease in a mouse with them. We have given some mice some monstrously aggressive and fatal tumors, though.
- The President has not even banned all federal research on ESCs. It is simply limited to 600 existing lines of embryonic cultures. Far fewer are actually in use, though experts dispute how many precisely are actually being used.
- Embryos are not simply going to be thrown away. In the case of extra embryos created for the purpose of in vitro fertilization, the male and female donors have, at least, property rights to them. They decide whether their embryos will be frozen to be used later, donated to other couples, discarded, or donated for research purposes. The period in which embryos must be preserved varies throughout the world from between perpetuity down to five or 10 years. There is currently no federal statute defining the status of embryos, but a patchwork of state laws. Some research hospitals complain that, in the case of in vitro embryos, even though they can technically discard them after five years, if they don’t get instructions from both donors allowing them to do so, there is nothing to prevent those donors from coming back and suing them. So the problem seems not to be discarded embryos, but an excess in storage even after they have become degraded.
- Advocates of unrestrained federal funding of ESC research claim opponents aren’t following the science. It is exactly the opposite. After 25 years of fruitless animal trials, advocates are arguing we should completely bypass that protocol and begin human experimentation.
Now a few long-term thoughts:
- The hope of advocates for ESC is understandable, even if overblown. Though many abortion advocates cynically use it as a stalking horse for their issue, one should not dismiss the sincere hope of many scientists and the desperation of many patients. But don’t forget, either, that a few decades ago certain unscrupulous people were peddling extracts from apricot pits as a miracle cure for cancer – and preying on terminally ill peoples’ desperation to strip them of everything they had. In the course of the very fruitful research into ASCs, some breakthrough may come which clears some of the hurdles to the usefulness of ESCs. I don’t consider it likely. The problems inherent here are probably a million times more complex than the problems were in sending a man to the moon. But human ingenuity has often surmounted seemingly insurmountable problems. (On the other hand, the scientific community is pretty much silent when one of its much-touted promises turns out to be a bust; witness gene therapy). If the research with ASCs produces a breakthrough that makes ESCs viable, the issue will certainly be revisited.
- The moral issue for those who, like me, believe life begins at conception, is more complicated than it first appears. In the first place, does conception occur at fertilization or at implantation of the fertilized egg? I know many evangelical Protestant Churches tacitly assume it is at the moment of fertilization. The Catholic Church opposes in vitro fertilization, but has not established defined (mandatory) doctrine condemning it (as mentioned in my introduction, the Catholic Church did issue a much more forceful condemnation of the procedure in December of 2008 – CJ) – or establishing when conception has occurred. This is an important long-term question, because if the answer is at fertilization, pro-lifers open themselves up to several trick bags. The first is that no fertilized egg has yet developed into a baby outside the womb. Such an embryo, to this point, can only develop into the muddled clump of tissue that pro-abortion advocates claimed 30 years ago that every fetus was. The second is that many fertilized eggs never implant and are naturally expelled from a woman’s body. This is the more ominous theological problem. If conception were defined as the moment of fertilization, opponents of pro-lifers could argue (with some merit) that if that is the case, even God treats human life cheaply. I don’t know what the answer is here, but I want us to know all the potential consequences of what we are dealing with. (Do not think you know my position on this from this paragraph. It was always my habit to give the best analysis of potential future problems regardless of what my personal belief was – CJ)
This summarizes what an official must know before making a defensible case on the issue. Following, then, is what I recommend as a sample positions statement on Stem Cell Research.
I strongly support scientific research that can cure disease and alleviate human suffering. That is why I am a vigorous advocate of federal funding of stem cell research – adult stem cell research. In the decade that serious research has been done on adult stem cells, over 70 promising approaches to human disease have been developed and used. Real people with real illnesses are being helped right now by the noble work our doctors and scientists have been doing with adult stem cells.
Yet for many of the same reasons, I am opposed to additional federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Let me explain…not a single useful human therapy has been developed through embryonic stem cell research, not one. Standard scientific protocols call for successful animal research before beginning human experimentation. Did you know that scientists have been engaged in unrestricted animal embryonic stem cell research for a quarter of a century now? And not a single breakthrough; not a bit of hope. So now advocates of embryonic stem cell research want us to ignore the science and, having failed at the animal trials, move directly into human experimentation? That’s not good science, it’s not good public policy, and it moves dollars that could be devoted to finding cures into research that has been nothing but a dead end for a quarter of a century.
Understand, I’m not opposing private research, which is allowed by current law. If either Ted Turner or Bill Gates want to devote their substantial private fortunes to embryonic stem cell research, there is no law preventing them – and I will not propose any such law. But I will not vote to devote scarce tax dollars to what has shown no promise when real people need real cures. We are at the very early stages of serious research with adult stem cells – and are making real progress and developing real therapies every month. If we stay the course, we have real hope of curing chronic diseases and repairing neurological injuries.
I don’t fault the advocates of embryonic stem cell research for their hope. They are sincere. But there are some serious problems that their yearning leads them to avoid. People’s immune systems attack foreign tissue, including tissues developed by stem cells taken from someone else’s body. Thus far, embryonic stem cells have not been able to develop into normal tissue outside the womb – all they can develop into are monstrous tumors of various types of tissue. It is not a matter of getting the right recipe – it must also be in the right physical environment with the right physical cues. So far the only such environment, in man or animals, is the mother’s womb and the body of the developing embryo itself.
So no, I will not vote to devote more federal funds to research that, in 25 years, has not even been able to cure a mouse (though it has succeeded in implanting fatally monstrous tumors in quite a few mice). But I will continue to advocate for funding for adult stem cell research. I believe we are on the verge of finding real relief for many who suffer – and I won’t be distracted from my commitment to that cause by the siren song of a therapy that has been born aloft by nothing but high hopes while producing no results.
With the background information I have provided here, you should be able to respond to any questions quickly and intelligently if you make this, or some version, of this statement.