Dartmouth professor joins stem cell debate

by Kathleen McDermott | 7/23/01 5:00am

As the Bush administration debates whether or not federal funds should subsidize stem cell research, Dartmouth Professor of Religion and Ethics Institute Chair Ronald M. Green has found himself at the center of what has become a heated national controversy in bioethics.

Pioneering research

Green currently serves as chair of an ethics advisory board to Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), a private biotechnology company that specializes in cloning research.

ACT researchers are the first to openly acknowledge that they are working to create clones of human entities.

Through their research in "therapeutic cloning," scientists at ACT hope to -- using stem cells from early embryos -- induce undifferentiated cells to develop into various forms of human tissue.

Using this technology, it might be possible to replace the damaged heart tissue in a heart attack victim, or create new skin tissue for a burn victim, Green explained.

Such research, however, raises many ethical issues and is not without its critics.

"Some think that an embryo at any stage is a human being," he said.

Yet according to Green, "we're talking about a cluster of cells, totally undifferentiated," with "no organs, no awareness, no sentience, no thinking or feeling," Green said. "Nothing that we normally would see as a human," he added.

He further argues that "simply to call it an embryo is to conclude something that is not necessarily true."

The embryos, or "activated eggs" as Green calls them, that are used in ACT's research are artificially created and not the result of human fertilization.

Furthermore, embryos less than 14 days old lack individuality and often split into two or even three distinct embryos.

Only after 14 days do the cells begin to differentiate and form a distinct head, body and nervous system, Green explained.

"I'm not saying that personhood begins at 14 days, but there is no individual before," he added.

And even if one of these activated eggs were allowed to develop, that it would be able to grow into a full human being is unlikely, Green said.

In addition, even among early embryos created naturally, nearly 75 percent do not develop to any further stage, according to Green.

"The very early embryo does not have the qualities associated with human individuality. When balanced against the very beneficial research that can be done with this, I come out to argue for that research," he added.

Policy debates

As ACT scientists go about their research, in Washington the pressure is heating up for Bush to take a stance on federal funding for stem cell research.

On Friday, 61 senators expressed their support for such research, sending letters to President Bush urging that federal funds be used for stem cell experimentation.

As Green explained, fertility clinics are overstocked with many frozen embryos, which currently are simply discarded.

Thus, proponents of stem cell research have suggested that such embryos be used to for research, creating stem cell lines from the embryos which can be used for valuable research purposes.

These lines of stem cells could be sold to the government at cost, and the government could then help connect researchers with the stem cells.

According to Green, many argue that these embryos will be destroyed anyway, so to use them for research seems the logical conclusion.

Opponents, however, counter that the embryos are human beings with moral worth, and even if they will already die, to use them for research is to violate human life.

And should Bush oppose stem cell research financing, many Congressmen have hinted that they would support a bill to provide such funding.

According to Senator Arlen Specter R-PA., 75 senators are in favor of such research financing.

The Bush administration must also soon decide whether or not to rescind rules the Clinton administration developed in order to work around a ban on embryo research passed by Congress.

A question of personhood

For Green, however, bioethics debates have been brewing for a long time.

Since 1994 he has involved himself in the stem cell research debate, serving on the National Institute of Health's Human Embryo Research Panel and helping draft guidelines for research on human embryos.

At Dartmouth he provides ethical oversight to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center's fertility clinic, and has taught a course on reproductive technology.

Just this spring his newest book -- "The Human Embyo Research Debates: Bioethics in the Vortex of Controversy" -- went to press.

As a bioethicist, Green finds these questions of personhood and how we conceive of the fetus and embryo very important.

One of the worst mistakes we make in looking to define personhood, according to Green, is looking only to one feature -- such as the presence of the human genome, or evidence of rationality and sentience -- and "making that the end-all be-all."

"We have to be aware of the complexity" of personhood, Green explained.