How to Talk to Democrats About Embryonic Stem Cell Research


September 3, 2006

The record shows that as the need for medical experiments grew, many physicians and others treated institutionalized infants, dying patients, and mentally impaired individuals as not quite persons in the moral sense. Moreover, indigent patients in hospitals were often treated in a similar fashion. . . .

Clearly, these ‘vulnerable’ individuals were thought of as not quite eligible for the moral consideration we would feel obliged to extend to those who were, in our judgment, full persons in the moral sense. They were, our practices suggested, not entitled to the same rights and respect that others enjoyed.

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Harold T. Shapiro, President Emeritus, Princeton University and the University of Michigan, from a lecture given at the University of Michigan, December 5, 2001


Few people are aware that there were no federal laws or regulations governing medical research until Sen. Edward Kennedy cosponsored the National Research Act in 1974, which created the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects. The passage of that bill meant that the conditions described by Shapiro could not recur, and that all persons would be granted protection from being turned into “human guinea pigs,” regardless of their social status.

Times have changed. Once again, medical experimentation is being carried forward on those who are not judged to be “full persons” and are not granted “the same rights and respect that others [enjoy].” This time, though, it’s performed on those whom the legal system won’t even grant a lawyer: the human embryo.

Because embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) doesn’t have the starkness of other pro-life issues, some people may not realize what an urgent issue it is. My wife, a former AIDS and cancer-research technician at Johns Hopkins University, put it simply: When it comes to ESCR, “the problem isn’t the cells, it’s the person you have to kill to get the cells.” And that’s what’s wrong with embryonic stem cell research as it stands today: It’s fatal. This research doesn’t use human beings as guinea pigs, but rather as clay pigeons.

Many senators and representatives with otherwise impeccable pro-life records—such as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)—actively support ESCR. As Senator Hatch put it, “Human life begins in the mother’s womb, not a petri dish or a refrigerator.” For others, there’s an admittedly uncomfortable trade-off at work—a utilitarian belief that since benefits will (we’re assured) result from ESCR, it is therefore morally acceptable, especially since the embryos are “going to be destroyed anyway.” And, of course, those who are already pro-abortion are going to dismiss those who oppose ESCR as religious fanatics.

As with abortion and euthanasia, those most likely to support ESCR are Democrats. And, like the other life issues, it can be a thorny subject for debate. The most important thing you can do when discussing the issue is pray—for your state and country; for your apostolate; for humility; and especially for your discussion partner.

The other main strategy is to locate common ground you hold with your friend and work from there. It doesn’t have to be about stem cell research; it doesn’t even have to be about politics. It could be any number of issues, even something as light as recent films or baseball scores. It’s a simple truth that we are more likely to listen to those with whom we feel some sort of rapport. To forestall any snap judgments about you or your position, it’s best to cultivate some conversation that will create a bridge between you and your interlocutor.

But even more than that, you must be empathetic yourself. You have to be able to see and understand that your debate partners really are trying to do what they think is right, and appreciate that they might not have been presented the truth in a way they can understand. You have to love them as Jesus did when He wept for them—to see them with His compassion when He said they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34).

After preparing yourself spiritually, it’s best to familiarize yourself with the important terms of the debate. Here are a few to get you started:

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are cells from a several-days-old human embryo (called a blastocyst). Researchers covet these cells for the often-fascinating insights they provide into the development of human beings, but even more so for their highly promising therapeutic benefits. There are three basic traits that make them such a commodity: They are pluripotent, or able to develop into any kind of cell in the body; they have an astonishing ability to self-renew, defying age; and, less frequently mentioned but of vital importance, they are human, which means that tests on these cells could provide more accurate results than those on animal cells. In order to research these cells, scientists must “harvest” them from the blastocyst, a lethal procedure.

Human cloning is the process by which an embryo is formed outside the body. First, the 23 chromosomes from an egg cell are removed. Next, an adult’s DNA (all 46 chromosomes) is transferred into the egg cell, which would then divide as if it had been fertilized by a sperm cell. The developing embryo would therefore be genetically identical to the DNA donor, having none of the egg donor’s original chromosomes. This process is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. As of this writing, human cloning has never been successfully accomplished (not even in South Korea, where Dr. Woo-Suk Hwang’s infamously fraudulent research was both completed and exposed). Without human cloning, nearly all ESCR treatments will prove extremely difficult due to the risk of tissue rejection (e.g., the patient may need to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of his or her life).

Adult stem cells (ASCs) is the blanket term given not only to the cells in adult bone marrow, fat, and throughout the rest of our bodies, but umbilical cord and placental stem cells as well. The greatest benefit of their use is that tissue rejection is impossible, since the stem cells would (except in the case of placental stem cells) come from the body of the actual patient. Bioethicists of all stripes are united in their support for human adult stem cell research. Scientists, however, are more divided, as many claim that adult stem cells lack the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells, though promising new research may change some minds.

For pro-lifers, the basic message is simple: ESCR is bad; ASCR is good. The former is unacceptable because of the person who must be killed to obtain the cells, whereas the latter is completely non-lethal—the only morally acceptable form of research in this area.


First Strategy: Compare the Success of ESCR and ASCR

A few years ago, I spoke with a pro-life legislator about the ESCR bill. I was surprised to hear that he was supporting it; when I asked why, he said that whenever he thought about it, he couldn’t get the picture of his six-year-old niece out of his head. His niece has juvenile diabetes, and he said that voting against ESCR would feel like voting to keep the little girl diabetic for the rest of her life.

I wish I’d replied with what Ian Wilmut—who cloned the sheep Dolly—wrote in the British Medical Journal: “Several of the conditions that are mentioned as candidates for cell therapy are autoimmune diseases, including type 1 [juvenile] diabetes. In such cases transfer of immunologically identical cells to a patient is expected to induce . . . rejection.” In other words, tissue-rejection issues exclude ESCR and human cloning from being candidates for the successful treatment of juvenile diabetes.

On the other hand, the Edmonton protocol uses islet cells (from the pancreas) to treat juvenile diabetes. The most recent data indicate that 80 percent of those patients treated require no insulin shots a full year after the treatment. While the islet cells are, unfortunately, hard to come by, adult stem cells from the child’s own body can be used to “cause pancreatic tissue to repair itself, restoring normal insulin production and reversing symptoms of diabetes” (JDRF Countdown). What the legislator really should have done was push for increased funding for adult stem cell research.

Like my legislator friend, most supporters of ESCR honestly want to help people who are suffering. The most effective way of reaching out to them is to show that you share their goal of funding medical research—but explain that ESCR simply isn’t the best way of discovering cures.

There are two main reasons to support adult stem cell research over the alternative: the success rate of ASCR and the incredible obstacles blocking ESC treatments.

ASCR has already successfully treated or cured more than 70 diseases and conditions, including some “miracle cures” of those who were previously paralyzed. Further, it avoids tissue-rejection problems. ASCs have already successfully developed into nerve, brain, and heart tissue, thought to be the hardest tissues to replicate; in fact, scientists’ opinion of the overall pluripotency of ASCs, especially from bone marrow, has been upgraded substantially (American Society of Hematology, December 12, 2005, press release). New methods of multiplying ASCs “allow [them] to be grown in sufficient quantities to permit far more research—and allow faster growth of tissues that can be transplanted into patients” (“From One Cell, Many Possible Cures,” Florida State University press release). And new sources of adult stem cells, some with the same pluripotency and self-renewability of ESCs, are being discovered all the time.

With embryonic stem cell research, we have the opposite problem. First, ESCs have neither cured nor treated any diseases or medical conditions in human beings to date. In order to avoid tissue rejection with ESCs, human cloning would be necessary. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is an eight-step process, meaning that there are more opportunities for error to be introduced into the process than with ASCs—not to mention that human cloning has never yet been successful, nor is likely to be successful without literally dozens of donated eggs per attempt. (Bioethicist and ESCR supporter Art Caplan admits that, in cloning three dogs—only two of which survived to birth—Dr. Hwang used 1,000 dog egg cells.)

Peer-reviewed research in the journals Somatosensory and Motor Research and American Journal of Pathology indicates that embryonic cells injected into mice often do not cure them, but instead create tumors. Even when they don’t directly form tumors, the journals Nature Genetics and Nature Biotechnology note that they still develop genetic abnormalities associated with cancer—partially the result of their energetic ability to develop into many different cell types, which can be hard to control.

Finally, James Sherley, associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, points out that ESCs are not able to survive the body’s cell turnover (where older cells are replaced with new ones), whereas ASCs are made to survive the process (“To Clone or Not to Clone“). The obstacles facing those pursuing medical treatments using ESCs are so great that Dr. Douglas W. Losordo, chief of cardiovascular research at Boston’s Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, said, “I think embryonic stem cells are going to fade in the rear-view mirror of adult stem cells.” Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, agreed: “Embryonic stem cell research is so far behind it’s like a joke. . . . We’re getting everything we need out of non embryonic stem cells, and what we’re getting is incredible.” To date, there have been nearly 1,200 human trials (either active or completed) with ASCs, but zero—none even in the planning stages—for ESCs.

The logic is simple: If a non-destructive option exists and has proven successful, isn’t it better than one that is destructive, unpredictable, and as yet unsuccessful?

A final caveat: There are some newly proposed methods of ESCR that are non-fatal. In the future, scientists may be able to harvest embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo. While there is some controversy over the process, some prominent Catholic bioethicists are cautiously optimistic that at least one of these new theories could prove morally acceptable.

Second Strategy: Debunk the Common Myths

Be aware of what your partner may be assuming. A lot of false information is circulating, and stem cell facts may be hard to come by through the popular media. Be aware that your interlocutor may be proceeding on false assumptions.

MYTH: Embryonic stem cell research is illegal.

FACT: As pro-ESCR journalist William Saletan wrote on, “No such ban exists. Embryonic stem cell research is unrestricted in the private sector.” The point is that private researchers are choosing not to proceed without federal funding—they’re too afraid of getting stuck with the bill if the research fails to pan out.

MYTH: Scientists only want to do research on leftover embryonic cells from in vitro fertilization (IVF) that would be destroyed anyway.

FACT: Howard Dean made this case on the presidential campaign trail, saying: “Embryonic stem cells come from embryos which have been created for the purpose of helping infertile couples have children. In this process . . . embryos will be frozen for future use. The vast majority of these will ultimately be discarded. But, these discarded embryos can produce something good, they can potentially save the life or health of a stranger.” It sounds nice in theory but is completely untrue.

We’ve already seen that nearly all ESC treatments would involve human cloning, which is a far different thing than using leftover cells. In fact, not only the treatment but even the research would involve cloning, including the creation of new stem cell lines. The California ESCR law specifies that women are not to be paid for egg donations beyond reimbursement of expenses, while both New Jersey and Maryland’s laws were written specifically to permit implantation of a cloned embryo into a human womb, as long as it is removed and destroyed before birth. Why would these laws have been written with legal language referring to egg donors and cloned embryos if the intent were solely to use leftover frozen embryos?

MYTH: Embryonic stem cells are not human.

FACT: While ESCR supporters may dance around the question of where life actually begins, Professor Sherley puts it bluntly: “There is no credible scientific debate on whether human embryos are alive and human.” Embryology textbooks universally agree: “The development of a human begins with conception” (Langman’s Medical Embryology); “the time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual” (Patten’s Foundations of Embryology); “the [zygote] results from the union of an oocyte [egg cell] and a sperm during fertilization. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being” (The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology).

Princeton University Professor of Jurisprudence Robert P. George writes, “The embryonic, fetal, infant, child and adolescent states are stages of development of a determinate and enduring entity—a human being—who comes into existence as a zygote and develops by a gradual and gapless process into adulthood many years later.” And after all, if the cells aren’t human, what else could they be? Butterflies? Worms? Goats? If they aren’t human, what good would the research do? The answer is obvious once the question is stated plainly, and objections simply fall apart.

MYTH: Cures from ESCR are coming soon.

FACT: ESCR supporter Professor Lord Robert Winston, at a special lecture, admitted, “I am not entirely convinced that embryonic stem cells will, in my lifetime, and possibly anyone’s lifetime for that matter, be holding quite the promise that we desperately hope they will.” Columnist and ESCR promoter Cynthia Tucker freely admits that “some of those cures could be decades away.” South Korean ESCR expert Curie Ahn is quoted as saying that cures might take “three to five decades.” Smart money is on the probability that successful ESC therapies will be nowhere near ready for literally decades, if at all—while successful ASC therapies are already in use. For example, people in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s are being told that there is no cure, when ASCR has already lead to a reduction of symptoms, according to two articles in the journal Nature Medicine. Victims of diseases like Parkinson’s and juvenile diabetes shouldn’t be forced to wait for ESCR to play catch-up.

MYTH: A majority of Americans support taxpayer funding of ESCR.

FACT: Poll results are frequently used in support of this argument, and yet questions in these polls are often misleading to the point of rendering their results meaningless. The U.S. Newswire, for example, reported in May 2006 that “nearly three-quarters of Americans support embryonic stem cell research,” but this doesn’t address whether they support taxpayer funding for it—an important distinction. Additionally, many poll questions about ESCR include a preface that inflates the research’s possibilities, falsely claims that ESCR will only involve “leftover” embryos from fertility clinics, or fails to mention that the research destroys human embryos. What’s more, some poll questions ask about “stem cell research” instead of “embryonic stem cell research”—a crucial distinction.

When all is said and done, only 39 percent of voters actually support taxpayer funding of embryo-destructive research, according to an International Communications Research poll from May of this year. Another question in the same poll revealed that 81 percent of Americans oppose using human cloning techniques to create embryos fated to be destroyed for the sake of science.

MYTH: ESCR is a promising avenue of research for Alzheimer’s disease.

FACT: ESCR is extremely unlikely to be successful in treating Alzheimer’s. Stem cell therapies are envisioned for use when one particular set of cells isn’t functioning properly, as in the case of diabetes or Parkinson’s disease. But as Dr. T. John Martin, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne, points out, “Alzheimer’s is a global condition of the brain and its causes are unknown. . . . It is virtually impossible to conceive that any form of cell therapy could be helpful with Alzheimer’s disease.”

On the other hand, ESCR could be useful in terms of discovering how Alzheimer’s develops—if you’re willing to create ESC lines, change their genes so that the lines develop Alzheimer’s, turn them into brain cells, and watch them deteriorate, like a modern-day Tuskegee experiment. Alternatively, you could develop a library of stem cell lines—perhaps a thousand or more—and turn all the lines into brain cells, and then observe them to see which ones actually develop Alzheimer’s, thus isolating the genetic component behind the disease. You could also add chemicals to various petri dishes to try to induce Alzheimer’s in the healthy lines.

Of course, you would have to kill thousands of human embryos to develop that library, but that’s no obstacle to researchers like Larry Goldstein, the chairman of the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s Government Affairs Committee, who proposed these two research methodologies to Congress on June 8, 2005. Another suggested method is to create mouse–human combinations, called “chimeras,” by injecting about 100,000 human ESCs into the brains of mice to study how human brain cells will respond to various procedures.

But none of these ideas implies a “cure” for Alzheimer’s. So why, if no cure is forthcoming, is Alzheimer’s routinely mentioned as a disease likely to be cured by ESCR? National Institutes of Health stem cell expert Ronald McKay puts it bluntly: “People need a fairy tale.”

MYTH: Most ESCR bills ban human cloning.

FACT: A few states do ban somatic cell nuclear transfer. However, a referendum on stem cell research in Missouri, for example, claims to outlaw human cloning by redefining the term as “implant[ing] in a uterus or attempt[ing] to implant in a uterus anything other than [IVF results] . . . for the purpose of initiating a pregnancy that could result in the creation of a human fetus, or the birth of a human being.” But this narrow definition doesn’t include somatic cell nuclear transfer. In other words, the bill says human cloning is acceptable as long as you kill the clone and harvest its cells before it becomes a fetus. What’s actually illegal is letting it live.

MYTH: ESCR is pure science.

FACT: While scientists are indeed fascinated by the potential of ESCR, there are also huge financial possibilities at stake. Research advocate and biotech writer James P. Kelly of the Seoul Times explained one of the reasons why he no longer supports ESCR: “I overlooked the fact that the scientists and industries urging us to travel the longest, most problem-filled paths to treatments and cures depend on the continued existence of disability and disease for their funding, profits, careers, and existence.”

A Web site sponsored by the Human Genome Project points out that, since ESCR involves the creation of cell lines, those lines “are technically patentable. . . . Patents could . . . discourage product development because of high royalty costs owed to all patent owners of that sequence; these are costs that will likely be passed on to the consumer.” On the other hand, ASCR involves techniques that can be repeated on different patients. Techniques are non-patentable—you can only patent a product or a design—so there is no potential for price-gouging with ASCR.
If ASCR and ESCR both result in treatments and cures, but only ESCR results in patents and profits, which would big business likely support? This is an example of the health-care industry’s obsession with profits over patients—a theme that will resonate with many Democrats.

Third Strategy: Oppose the Exploitation of Women

When it comes to second-wave feminism, one of the movement’s most important texts was Judy Norsigian’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was especially concerned with the exploitation of women’s bodies. Norsigian has now quite logically applied her concern to include the exploitation of women for the sake of medical research.

In a 2005 editorial in the Boston Globe (“Risks to Women in Embryo Cloning“), Norsigian mentions the ESC controversy, noting, “Omitted from the polarized debate is any discussion of the thousands of women who will need to undergo egg extraction procedures for such embryo cloning. A primary concern is the substantial risks to women’s health posed by the extraction procedure and the inability to obtain true informed consent from egg donors given the current lack of adequate safety data.”

Getting more specific, she points out that 3 percent to 8 percent of women who take drugs to stimulate egg production—as women do when donating eggs—develop Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome, a condition that can be not only painful but occasionally fatal within “days after completion of egg collection.” A study published in the journal Animal Biology suggests the troubling possibility that ovarian hyper-stimulation treatments may lead to stillbirths and birth defects in future pregnancies. Additionally, the drug Lupron, which is “used to ‘shut down’ the ovaries before stimulation,” produces side effects including bone loss, liver problems, and acute pain. Finally, she discusses the philosophical issue of treating women’s eggs as commodities, a stance that objectifies women as mere producers of biological goods. “This is very much a women’s issue,” Norsigian says elsewhere; “there is a very strong pro-choice liberal contingent that believes there is something wrong with embryo cloning.”

Among that “contingent” was California’s Pro-Choice Alliance Against Proposition 71 (referring to the ESCR funding bill that eventually became law). The alliance points out that thousands of women will need to donate eggs to keep up with demand from researchers, a fact that “raises troubling questions about the exploitation of women, especially those who are young and poor.”

The feminist organization Hands Off Our Ovaries has as its slogan, “Because losing even one woman’s life is too high a price to pay.” They note that there have been “25 deaths and over 6,000 complaints of medical complications attributed to Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome” and urge the FDA to investigate the possibilities of ovarian cancer, infertility, and birth defects that may also result from this procedure. Medical sociologist Diane Besson said in congressional testimony that in pursuing ever-increasing demands for human eggs, “We are being asked to make women the servants of biotechnology.” This idea should appall any Democrat concerned with women’s health issues, especially when he or she realizes that Dr. Hwang’s unsuccessful experiments into human cloning used 2,221 female egg cells (“Beyond Embryo Politics,” The Women’s Health Activist).

Fourth Strategy: Discuss Business Ethics

Most all Democrats are alike in their suspicion of big business. It makes a good debating point, then, to emphasize that the same ethical behavior we expect from our business leaders should apply no less to our scientists.

Compare it to a Democrat’s opposition to animal testing, especially for non-medical purposes. Democrats believe that if there are two options—one destructive, one non-destructive—and both achieve the same ends, one should favor the non-destructive option. This situation could also apply to polluters, tobacco companies, sweat shops, and employers who fail to attend to gender equity issues.

The parallel holds for scientific research: If there are two avenues of medical research available, where one is very possibly fatal and the other is always non-fatal, to deliberately choose the former constitutes unethical behavior.

Fifth Strategy: Tug at Their Heartstrings

We can’t help but shudder when we hear of forced organ harvesting from prisoners on death row in China. Human-rights activist Harry Wu describes how this situation came to be: “The materialistic philosophy of the Communist Party sees human life as coming from matter. They think life has no value. . . . This is the basic perspective of [the] Chinese Communist regime’s use of the organs of death row inmates.” To the Communist Chinese government, human bodies are merely useful objects, and the human person becomes nothing more than a commodity. The same could be said of the attitude that supports ESCR.

Don’t be afraid to mention Tuskegee, Willowbrook, the Thalidomide trials, and the Cold War radiation experiments—all carried out on human subjects—or the medical research routinely performed on the poor, the dying, and the mentally retarded in the 1800s. The comparison is appropriate: Once we decide that other people are actually less than people, we tend to use them as tools for our own benefit. To a Democrat championing the rights of the disenfranchised, this mindset should be unconscionable.

In the debate about ESCR, the life-and-death urgency of the issue is often lost—it is, after all, hard to put a face or a name to a blastocyst. For that very reason, an argument drawing on these emotional cues can be a good way to remind your interlocutor of the gravely important ideals that are at stake here.

Framing the Choice Clearly

While debates about abortion and euthanasia often take center stage, legislation expanding ESCR is quietly but steadily surpassing them both. Arguments about ESCR on the federal level overlook the fact that the issue is already being pushed through in the legislatures of state after state, and even normally pro-life Republicans are advocating for funding.

With the issue advancing ahead of public debate, it is imperative that we ask ourselves the question suggested by Shapiro’s observations: Who is a person? Our answer will say much about society, and just where it is heading.


  • Eric Pavlat

    Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

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