Friendly Fire: The Rough and Tumble World of the Stem Cell Debate


With the announcement last November that Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep, was ditching cloning in favor of the “amazingly efficient” method of induced pluripotent stem-cell research (iPS) — which reprograms adult stem cells into embryonic ones without using human embryos or eggs — pro-lifers had reason to celebrate. The most prominent cloning researcher had done an about-face in favor of research that would avoid not only the destruction of embryos but also other ethical dilemmas, such as the potential need for widespread collection of human eggs.

However, even as pro-lifers’ champagne-glass clinking continues with further iPS breakthroughs, a prominent academic is pursuing taxpayer funding for a type of stem-cell research using human egg cells that has sparked heated debate among Catholic ethicists. And, to hear him tell it, he’s got the ear of Sen. John McCain.
The technique is known as Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT), and its proponent is William Hurlbut, M.D., a self-described “generic Christian” Stanford University consulting professor and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. ANT and its variant ANT-OAR involve a modification of the human cloning process. In normal human cloning, DNA from a person’s cell is put into a human egg; the result is an embryo, which is an identical clone of the person who contributed the donor cell. In ANT, the same process is used, except that either a negative or positive mutation is added to the donor cell.
The result of the ANT process, Hurlbut argues, is not an embryo, but merely biological material from which human embryonic stem cells can be gleaned. For this reason, the professor promotes the process as an “ethical” way to do embryonic stem cell research, and he has acquired the backing of some well-regarded pro-lifers. In 2005, after ANT was discussed in a White Paper by the President’s Council on Bioethics, the Westchester Institute, a Catholic think tank directed by Rev. Thomas Berg, L.C., brought Hurlbut together with 34 intellectual leaders, producing a “Joint Statement“endorsing animal trials of ANT-OAR.
However, other respected pro-lifers, including David Schindler, Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, and Adrian Walker, associate editor of the scholarly journal Communio and English translator of many of Pope Benedict XVI’s books, aren’t so confident. In their view, the product of ANT is actually a radically defective human embryo — a person purposefully created so as to die before birth.
Understanding the theological and philosophical issues surrounding ANT is a stretch for the layman. What is clear is that reasonable and respected minds can and do disagree sharply about whether at some point during the ANT process, a human embryo — and hence new human life — comes into existence, even if in mutated form. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is known to be studying ANT, and a comprehensive collection of arguments from Catholic academics on both sides of the issue is available on the Communio Web site.
In the meantime, the effort of Hurlbut and others to seek taxpayer funding for ANT continues. For pro-lifers wishing to understand what is at stake politically, a historical perspective is in order.
Ten years ago, abortion was the dominant pro-life issue. Certainly, there was a contentious debate over the use of fetal tissue in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the federal government adopting a liberalized policy, yet most pro-life Americans still viewed the life issue singularly, condemning abortion as an obvious taking of human life.
That focus changed with a rapid series of developments in the scientific realm, including Wilmut’s cloning of Dolly and University of Wisconsin professor James Thomson’s isolating human embryonic stem cells using a technique resulting in the destruction of human embryos. (Thomson, like Wilmut, also made headlines last November declaring that iPS would likely make embryo-destructive research unnecessary.)
Pro-life Americans were initially opposed. For Catholics in particular, the language of the Church, as stated by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, was clear that “the use of human embryos . . . as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings” and that “this moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos . . . either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases. The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.”
The muddying of the pro-life waters really began in the spring of 2001, when proponents of human embryonic stem cell research, boosted by Superman-star-turned-patient-advocate Christopher Reeve, launched an emotional media campaign to provide taxpayer funding for the human-destructive research. At the same time, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter was pushing for such funding via his Stem Cell Research Act. Then, on May 24, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords switched parties from Republican to Independent — handing control of the previously evenly divided Congress from Republicans to Democrats.
At the time of Jeffords’s shift, President Bush appeared to be stalwartly opposed to the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. He had written to the Culture of Life Foundation on May 18 that he would “oppose Federal funding for stem-cell research that involves destroying living human embryos.” Despite the president’s stand, as well as Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback’s commitment to filibuster any legislation that would fund the human-destructive research, some pro-life leaders sought a compromise to alleviate the political pressure.
That compromise materialized on August 9, 2001, when President Bush announced that the federal government — for the first time ever — would fund human embryonic stem cell research. The caveat was given that only those human embryonic stem cell lines in existence prior to his announcement would be funded.
For researchers, the effective message was that the government would fund embryonic stem cell research, even if not to the extent desired by those conducting the human experimentation. The policy gave researchers reason to believe that if they continued to destroy embryos to create cell lines, their lines might conceivably be eligible for such funding in future, should a later executive order allow the funding of lines created after the arbitrary date of Bush’s announcement.
It is ironic that President Bush is often blamed by human embryonic stem cell research proponents for blocking the research. Whether one views Bush’s action as praiseworthy or blameworthy, the fact is that under his leadership the United States began funding human embryonic stem cell research.
In his August 9 announcement, Bush announced the formation of the President’s Council on Bioethics to consider matters relating to stem cell research and other new scientific developments. Five months later, the president named the council’s charter members — Dr. Hurlbut among them.
During an August 2002 conference in Australia, Hurlbut noted the speculative promise for treatments using human embryonic stem cells while simultaneously casting doubt upon the breadth of therapeutic treatments from adult stem cells. The Age newspaper reported he “offered a proposal to exploit the potential of new cloning technologies while avoiding moral concerns. He said it might be possible to create a ‘clonal artifact’ with ‘no potential for human life’ by combining cloning and genetic engineering techniques.”
By the fall of 2004, Hurlbut had settled upon ANT as the means of pursuing his vision and had begun his campaign to pursue funding for research. His lobbying efforts followed quickly on the heels of the passage of a California ballot initiative known as Proposition 71, which earmarked $3 billion in state taxpayer funds over a ten-year period for stem cell research, with particular emphasis on research involving embryonic stem cells. {mospagebreak}
Before pro-life advocates and all but a small group of Catholic thinkers had vetted let alone heard of ANT, Hurlbut managed to persuade then-Archbishop William Levada to write a letter to President Bush on August 4, 2004. Levada assured the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “interest in and encouragement of Dr. Hurbut’s proposal.” He continued, “I hope it will also receive active consideration and support from your office.”
Within months, Hurlbut brought his proposal to Washington, D.C., and in June 2005 the “Joint Statement” in favor of ANT-OAR that was produced with the aid of the Westchester Institute added fuel to his efforts. Even so, the professor met with less enthusiasm than he expected, according to one Capitol Hill veteran. “It was almost like Hurlbut assumed that ANT would be universally supported because a few leading Catholic academics with credibility in the pro-life community claimed ANT was ethical,” the aide told me.
The professor’s lobbying efforts affected the 109th Congress in two ways: On the legislative side, a bill to endorse “alternatives” to embryonic stem cell research passed the Senate unanimously, but was defeated in the House of Representatives. His second legacy was much more damaging, potentially costing the Senate a pro-life vote — U.S. Sen. Jim Talent — in future Congresses.
At the time that Hurlbut met Talent, the Missouri Republican had joined Sens. Sam Brownback and Mary Landrieu in sponsoring the Human Cloning Prohibition Act. The bill had the backing of pro-lifers, environmental activists, and even some advocates for the ill and disabled, who wished to see federal funding focused on ethical adult stem cell treatments that had already proven effective for over 60 conditions. After meeting with the professor, Talent withdrew his co-sponsorship on the grounds that the legislation might impede ANT.
On February 10, 2006, the day he pulled his support, Talent said on the Senate floor that a key problem for him was the anti-cloning bill’s language, which would have prevented the production of “a living organism (at any stage of development) that is genetically virtually identical to an existing or previously existing human organism”:
The author and most vocal champion of ANT is Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford. Dr. Hurlbut assured me months ago that ANT was technologically feasible and would soon be validated through animal models. . . . [T]here is a danger that the [human cloning ban] . . . would outlaw or imperil precisely those alternatives which hold the greatest promise of allowing stem cell research while protecting the integrity of human life. I discussed this problem with Doctor Hurlbut and, in a recent letter, he expressed concern that [the human cloning ban] as drafted might be misinterpreted to outlaw ANT. He pointed out that the term ‘virtually identical’ is vague and unscientific and, therefore, could be open to misinterpretation either more broadly or more narrowly than intended by the proponents of this legislation.
For pro-lifers with ethical concerns about ANT, Talent’s announcement that the “product” of ANT could be perceived as “virtually identical” to an embryo raised an additional red flag.
Talent’s reversal did not sit well with pro-life advocates in his home state. “We’re very disappointed,” commented Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life, to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The newspaper noted that Missouri Right to Life was “the state’s largest anti-abortion group and one known for helping to swing close state elections.” It would not be unreasonable to wonder if Talent’s actions on February 10 contributed to his narrow defeat for re-election later that November.
As the campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination shifted into gear, Hurlbut found an ally in former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who even mentioned the professor in the first GOP candidates’ debate on May 3, 2007. Asked his position on embryonic stem-cell research, Romney replied:
Altered Nuclear Transfer, I think, is perhaps the best course . . . . Altered Nuclear Transfer creates embryo-like cells that can be used for stem cell research. In my view, that’s the most promising source . . . . I want our government funds to be used on Dr. Hurlbut’s method, which is Altered Nuclear Transfer.
When Romney dropped out of the race, Hurlbut shifted his sights to John McCain. In mid-April, he met with the presumptive GOP nominee and afterwards told the press that McCain “wants to honor all sides of the issue.”
Reached by phone for InsideCatholic, Hurlbut offered more details. “Senator McCain was very attentive, very thoughtful and, I felt, humble about this difficult issue — and, he seemed eager to consider the full range of perspectives on it,” he told me.
“As to what he will do, it was not that kind of discussion. It was a discussion about what the realities are out there. I gave him a broad overview of the stem-cell situation on the whole spectrum of stem cell research and that of course included discussion of the hopeful alternatives. I gave him my perspectives on this — he wanted to know what I thought.”
Embryonic stem cell research is inevitable, Hurlbut said, and pro-lifers fail to understand that ANT is a means of gaining “moral consensus” on the issue.
“The pro-life community has a history of at times being somewhat unstrategic, and this is a situation where really deep knowledge needs to govern,” he said. “You are not going to be able to convince the general public there is no value in embryonic stem cell research.”
I observed to him that some pro-lifers would be cautious about moving forward with ANT unless the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared it ethical.
“The CDF couldn’t do it until the research on animals is done,” Hurlbut replied, adding that he had talked with Bishop Elio Sgreccia, head of the Pontifical Academy of Life. The bishop, he said, “seemed open and interested, but wanted to know more about the science of what is proposed.”
In the meantime, while others urge delay out of prudence until the Vatican provides clarity on the issue, Dr. Hurlbut presses on. His approach continues to enjoy the support of some notable pro-life academics and, if he has his way, maybe even the next president.


  • Dawn Eden

    Dawn Eden is author of “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On” (Thomas Nelson, 2006) and has been featured on NBC’s Today show and EWTN’s Life on the Rock. Visit her online at or her blog, The Dawn Patrol.

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