Where Catholic Universities Can Lead the Way

In December, the New Jersey Legislature boldly stepped into the cross hairs of the human-cloning debate by ambitiously passing one of the most shortsighted pieces of legislation this country has ever seen.

The legislation, which was designed to ensure the legality of therapeutic human cloning, not only makes it legal to clone a human, but it goes so far as to legalize the implantation of the clone into a woman's uterus.

To ensure the passing of such groundbreaking legislation, the law-makers realized they had a few minor obstacles to overcome. One of the most pressing was the need to quell fears that the passing of the bill might lead to some futuristic attack of the human killer clones. In order to manage this precarious balancing act, allowing therapeutic cloning but putting the brakes on reproductive cloning, the ingenious lawmakers struck upon the following provision: If you do make a clone you have to kill him at some point before birth.

This certainly was a heartwarming touch.

However, the necessity of such an inane provision makes it apparent that in trying to strike some “morally acceptable” middle ground, the legislation fails miserably in the realm of common sense. It does succeed, however, on two other fronts, so all is not lost for the New Jersey Legislature.

First off, it succeeds in shocking the sensibilities of all who believe in the sanctity of human life in the womb, and second, it succeeds in legitimizing such atrocities as fetal organ trafficking.

How have we reached the point where legislators are able to assent to both the destruction and reckless use of human life with such casual indifference? In the case of therapeutic cloning, which involves killing a cloned embryo and harvesting its stem cells for therapeutic purposes, the legislators succumbed to the tantalizing promises of the seemingly magical embryonic stem cells.

It is true that these cells, which can be coaxed into becoming virtually any cell type in your body, might some day be useful for treating a whole host of diseases. (This is especially true if we as a society continue steadily down the road embarked upon long ago with the advent of Roe v. Wade.) In fact, advocates of the technique promise it will eventually cure grandma's Alzheimer's, dad's diabetes, your uncle's spinal-cord injury and even your husband's tendency to stare vacantly off into space blissfully unaware of your screaming infant.

While these are promising benefits indeed, they are still only promises, and one seldom hears the risks involved with such treatments and the difficulties still to be overcome. These include: 1) the possibility that these cells will divide, aberrantly forming tumors once implanted in the body; and 2) the possibility that the cells will function aberrantly once in the body, thus further disrupting the organ they were destined to repair. Both possibilities have occurred in clinical studies.

The medical risks of such treatments are almost never mentioned out loud by the popular press, and those with ethical concerns are finding themselves sufficiently marginalized by those who stand to benefit (especially financially) from the whole enterprise. The biotech industry and the politicians they lobby successfully are more than happy to continually overstate the possible benefits of therapeutic cloning and downplay both medical and ethical problems if there is money to be made or votes to be had.

Others who stand to benefit, particularly patient-lobbying organizations (Parkinson's Disease Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International, etc.) led by such luminaries as the ubiquitous Christopher Reeve, are more than willing to join hands with the biotech industry in this Herculean lobbying effort. It helps that the biotech industry dangles promises of cures like a carrot to spur these organizations to action.

Such firepower has been largely successful in painting those who raise ethical objections to the technique as outof-touch moralists who are insensitive to the plight of grandma, not to mention your husband. If the goal of therapeutic cloning is to help grandma, what could be wrong with it? Especially if it is, as it is so often claimed, her best hope. (Of course there is no way of knowing if this assertion is true.) Such reasoning allows scientific and medical progress to trump morality at every turn. This is, as some people are beginning to realize, a scary prospect, to say the least.

What, then, is the solution? Is therapeutic cloning inevitable despite the regulatory roadblocks that still exist? President Bush stopped short of banning the procedure a few years back, allowing publicly funded work to continue on already established cell lines and allowing private companies to do what they will. The New Jersey ruling allows just about everything imaginable, even the “sale” of fetal body parts. The battle at the regulatory level, in many respects, is already lost.

Where, then, do we turn? Some might argue that training bioethicists grounded in Catholic and Christian moral principles will solve the problem, but this will hardly make a dent upon the biotech industry, for two reasons.

One, the industry has its own bioethicists on board and they aren't there to offer criticism but to clear the ethical landscape for the company product. In addition, the limited numbers of bioethicists who do have a firm moral grounding speak a different language and inhabit a different sphere than most scientists, making their influence on biological research minimal at best. This leaves companies and investors left to make their own decisions, outside the influence of sound moral teaching and, if lobbying efforts continue to be successful, outside the regulation of federal and state governments.

The only sure way to keep therapeutic cloning from becoming a widespread reality is to successfully explore and develop alternatives. Alternatives that are successful yet are not morally problematic will likely be favored by a public that is uneasy with therapeutic cloning but does not want to give up on its imagined benefits for grandma.

If alternative therapies are successful, biotech companies will lose one of their largest lobbying aids, the patient-lobbying groups who will likely jump ship on the whole idea if a more reliable way to a cure is found.

Along these lines everyone has heard of the possibility of using stem cells from adults. Many tissues in the body have cells that are undifferentiated and can be teased into becoming a variety of different cell types. These adult stem cells are proving to be a very promising option, as many risks such as the possibility of the cells becoming cancerous seems to be minimized compared with embryonic stem cells. If you're interested, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lists many promising therapies involving adult stem cells at www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/bioethic/fact401.htm.

Another alternative strategy might be helpful as well. Researchers are now attempting to take mature adult cells and coax them into returning to an embryonic state. By adding certain proteins and growth factors to mature skin or liver cells, it might one day be possible for these adult cells to take on the shape and ability of embryonic cells. These cells could then be manipulated into becoming any cell type of interest in much the same way as adult and embryonic stem cells.

Because much work is still to be done, the present situation represents a major opportunity for Catholic research universities nationwide. What better way to further the ethical alternatives to the use of embryonic stem cells than to focus new faculty hires on scientists with research interests in adult stem cells or the reprogramming of adult cells into embryonic-like cells? Certainly one does not want to replace researchers at these universities who investigate other very important lines of research, but new hires are typically an opportunity for a university to move in a new direction and/or build specific areas of expertise.

Should not alternative stem cell therapies be an area of expertise at our Catholic universities?

Many Catholic universities are in danger of losing their Catholic identity as they continue to assent to the trends in secular higher education. The current state of research surrounding therapeutic cloning and the ethical alternatives to such cloning presents a unique opportunity. It is an opportunity in which Catholic universities can, in a very concrete and relatively uncontroversial manner, be of service to the Church and help rebuild a culture of life.

The active and unambiguous support of these novel lines of research remains our best hope of countering a society that is becoming increasingly comfortable with the destruction of embryos for therapeutic purposes. It is hoped Catholic universities will step up and lead the charge.

Daniel Kuebler, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.