Splitting the Baby: The Public Supports It, So Why No Stem Cell Research?

The spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Sean Tipton, gets calls all the time from women asking how they can donate their leftover IVF embryos for research. “It’s almost impossible,” he says. “I can only tell them to call their congressman and tell him to lift the ban. It’s frustrating. These people have gone through an incredible emotional and physical hardship, and they would very much like something good to come of it.”

Two out of three Americans (and even 50 percent of evangelicals) support embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), yet only 3 percent of excess embryos have been designated by parents for research. Since President Bush’s ban on federal funding for ESCR in 2001, it has simply not been on their menu of options. ESCR is carried out by only a few private laboratories and state-funded labs in New Jersey and Illinois. (California, where voters approved $3 billion for ESCR in 2004, has yet to distribute research funds because of a lawsuit brought by an affiliate of Focus on the Family, among others.) In either case, these labs get their embryos from the handful of IVF clinics that accept donations for research.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

This puts Republicans in an awkward position. How to mollify voters (to say nothing of Nancy Reagan) without alienating their pro-life base? Enter Pennsylvania Republican Senators Rick Santorum (who has likened escr to abortion but who is up for reelection) and Arlen Specter (an ardent proponent of ESCR), who, backed by the President’s Council on Bioethics, have concocted a novel way to split this political baby. Their bill, S.B. 2754, proposes manufacturing nonviable embryos by replacing the nucleus of a woman’s egg with that of an adult cell in which the DNA has been altered. The resulting “entity”—in the words of one researcher; others have called it a “biological artifact”—is “pluripotent,” i.e., able to transform itself into most types of human cells, while bypassing the “totipotent” stage, when the embryo could develop into a human being.

The science behind Altered Nuclear Transfer-Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming has only been tested on mice, and ethical questions loom: ant-oar requires mass egg donation (and destruction) and uses techniques similar to human cloning. But who says it is supposed to work? As the bill provides no specific funding, it seems designed solely as an opportunity for legislators and the president to claim that they support embryonic stem cell research. Meanwhile, more viable lines of scientific inquiry are being killed in their infancy—for example, those 3 percent of frozen embryos already slated for research could create up to 275 new stem cell lines—and Tipton’s callers are left with nowhere to turn.