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As a coldhearted, rational type of guy, I can’t get too excited about the pro-life objection to embryonic stem cell research. The pro-lifers argue that it’s wrong to destroy fertilized human eggs for research purpose. But the eggs in question are going to be destroyed eventually anyway. Why not put them to good use?
However, the other day I came upon some aspects of the research that frightened even me. Wesley J. Smith is the author of a book titled “A Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World.” He’s a lawyer and sometime Ralph Nader collaborator who is skeptical about just where the biotech industry is leading us with its incessant call for infinitely more spending on the research.

It’s not leading us to test-tube cures for such diseases as diabetes and Parkinson’s, Smith said when I gave him a call at his California home. There is simply no reliable method for turning an embryonic stem cell into the type of cell that can be safely implanted in the body of a disease victim.

“Embryonic stem cells cause tumors in mice,” Smith said. “You simply can’t control their growth.”

The same problems are likely to occur in any attempt to implant embryonic stem cells in humans, he said. But there’s a much easier — and more ominous — means of employing the technology, he said. The most efficient way of turning embryonic stem cells into the cells needed to treat a certain disease would be to create an embryo that is a clone of the patient. If that embryo could then be implanted into a uterus, the resulting fetus would contain a perfect copy of every cell in the patient’s body. The ominous part is that the only way to gain access to those cells would be to abort the fetus. Smith fears that’s where we’re headed.

“What I think will happen is that when everything that can be obtained from research in a petri dish is obtained, then there will be a move to go from a petri dish to early gestation,” Smith told me.

That’s a disturbing thought. Even more disturbing is that such a practice would be perfectly legal in at least one state: New Jersey. A bill signed into law last year by Gov. James McGreevey permits exactly that sort of practice, Smith said. The bill’s ostensible purpose was to enable stem cell research, but it also contained language regulating the traffic in fetal tissue. And the only way to turn stem cells into fetal tissue is through implantation in the womb, Smith notes.

The bill also purports to ban human cloning, but it defines cloning as “cultivating a cell with genetic material through the egg, embryo, fetal and newborn stages.”

That would seem to permit cloning as long as the fetus in question were to be aborted, Smith notes.

Smith’s reading of the bill is supported by Princeton University ethicist Robert George, who serves on the president’s council on bioethics. Like Smith, George said he fears the stem cell debate inevitably has to move into a debate over cloning fetuses for their parts.

“The initial argument was that we’d create these cloned embryos, but heavens, we would never implant them in a uterus,” George told me.

But now that Korean scientists have shown how easy it is to create an embryo that is a clone, we’re that much closer to the idea of using those clones to cure diseases.

“As soon as this gets accepted, then they’ll argue, ‘If we can just implant them,'” George told me.

That argument will be even more forceful than the argument for embryonic stem cell research, he said. In the current debate, diabetics and quadriplegics are pleading for a cure that remains a distant possibility. But when it comes to cloning, most of the technology already exists. A cow has already been cloned to produce a working copy of her own kidneys, for example.

George told me he wrote to legislators to warn them they should amend the bill to preclude the possibility of implanting any cloned embryo in a uterus. They didn’t respond, he said.

“Perhaps it seemed so bizarre they didn’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

I got one of the bill’s sponsors on the phone and bounced these criticisms off him. Joe Vitale, a Democratic state senator from Woodbridge and a very sensible guy, told me that the concerns raised by Smith and George had no basis in reality. If scientists ever announced an attempt to implant cloned embyros, the Legislature would act, he said.

“That would be entirely inappropriate and entirely unethical,” Vitale said. “If New Jersey law needs to be further clarified, we should make sure that can never happen.”

That certainly makes sense. But I then asked Vitale why a bill that purports to regulate embryonic stem cell research would contain language about regulating the traffic in fetal tissue.

“Hmmmm,” he replied as he thought for a minute. “I have no answer for that.”

“Who wrote the bill?” I asked.

“It was cobbled together from a number of sources,” he said. “One of them was that doctor who came to testify. I forget his name.”

“Dr. Frankenstein?” I offered.

Vitale laughed.

I’m a funny guy. They should clone me.

Paul Mulshine is a Star-Ledger columnist. He may be reached at [email protected]