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Stem Cell Research: Medical Miracle or Moral Nightmare?

Aired August 9, 2001 - 12:30   ET



CHRISTOPHER REEVE: You don't really have an ethical problem, because you're actually saving lives by using cells that are going to the garbage. I just don't see how that's immoral or unethical. I really don't.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), OHIO: There is no proof whatsoever that this embryonic stem cell technology has benefited a single human being or that it could.


ROGER COSSACK, HOST: Science, ethics, and the limits of the law. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Is stem cell research the best hope for millions who suffer from crippling diseases, or is it a dangerous moral sinkhole? And who will decide our nation's course? Plus, last week, the House passed the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, but the debate is far from over. Should we clone a human?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. I'm in Los Angeles today.

President Bush has made up his mind regarding the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

Tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time -- I want to interrupt now and go up to Capitol Hill, to hear Senator Tom Daschle, who will be answering some questions on stem cell research -- Senator Daschle.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D), SOUTH DAKOTA: ... the advances that this research could to yield.

My personal hope, and the hope of a broad, bipartisan majority in Senate, is that the president will choose allow this ground-breaking research to go forward with federal funding. To support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is to come down on the side of hope for the millions of Americans suffering from diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to cancer to Parkinson's to diabetes. As scientists learn more, new applications are being suggested virtually every week. Further more, federal funding and oversight will subject this research to the most rigorous ethical and safety standards.

I know the president is treating this important decision with the seriousness it demands, look forward to his announcement this evening.

With that, I'll take your questions -- Diana.


DASCHLE: If the president comes out with another decision, short of the one that we hope he will make, it would be my expectation that we would schedule legislation sometime this fall to have the debate and the opportunity to fully fund stem cell research, as I think a strong bipartisan majority in the Senate would support.

QUESTION: With the escalation of violence in the Middle East, especially today's bombing in Jerusalem, do you see some sort of a disconnect in U.S. foreign policy initiatives?

COSSACK: We're been listening to Senator Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, speaking on stem cell research.

This is BURDEN OF PROOF. We are going to go ahead with our show. We also are talking about stem cell research.

Let me introduce our guests. Joining us today from Indianapolis, Indiana is Republican Congressman Mike Pence. Also in Indianapolis is cell biology professor David Prentice.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, we are joined by Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad.

And in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

Congressman Ramstad, I want to start right with you.

You've been very outspoken in support of federal funding for stem cell research. Tell me why.

REP. JIM RAMSTAD (R), MINNESOTA: The scientific evidence is overwhelming that stem cells derive from surplus embryos, embryos that would otherwise be thrown in the garbage, that such stem cells have great potential to regenerate specific types of human tissue and organs, which is a matter of life or death to literally 100 million Americans suffering ravages of cruel, fatal diseases, like Alzheimer's; Parkinson's; juvenile diabetes; ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease -- not to mention spinal cord paralysis. So the potential from using these surplus embryos, the stem cells derived from the surplus embryos, is truly great, according to all the scientific evidence that I have seen.

COSSACK: Congressman Ramstad, there's argument that sometimes even though these are embryos scheduled to be, perhaps, thrown away, not all the time are they thrown away, and that, in fact, you are destroying life by taking these stem cells from embryos. How do you respond to that?

RAMSTAD: These stem cells are those derived, as I said, from surplus embryos, those that are going to be discarded. They are obtained through in vitro fertilization.

I understand and respect the deeply held religious and moral views of some people, including the Pope, who are against in vitro fertilization. And if you are coming from that perspective, I certainly understand why you wouldn't support such research. But the overwhelming majority of the people I represent -- the overwhelming majority of American people, I believe, including the majority of the House of Representatives, on both sides of the aisle -- support this life-saving research.

COSSACK: Congressman, you are a Republican. It is possible tonight that the president of the United States, also a Republican, may come out and decide that he's against this stem cell research. In light of that, Senator Daschle said that he believes that the House and the Senate will take up legislation. Would you be prepared to go against what your president has recommended?

RAMSTAD: This is a very important issue to people like my own mother, who suffers from Albanians's. It's probably too late for her; she's in the final phase. But I know many, many Americans, many Minnesotans, suffering from Alzheimer's, suffering from juvenile diabetes. I lost a first cousin to diabetes. This is a very difficult issue, I realize, for some, but it's a very important issue, and this biomedical research is literally a matter of life and death for 100 million Americans.

I, along with my colleague, the Democrat from Colorado, Diana Degette, introduced legislation in the House to provide for this important federal funding if the president decides to the contrary.

COSSACK: Let's join in now with Indianapolis, Congressman Mike Pence.

Congressman Pence, you have an opposite view. Please let me hear your view on this.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), INDIANA: Thank you, Roger. It's great to be with you. I have such great regard for Jim, and he does such a wonderful job for the people of Minnesota. I think he illustrates very well today why this nation, in a recent CNN poll, is so divided on this issue, Roger.

There are competing values here. One is value of the sanctity of human life, and protecting and cherishing and choosing life, which is what I believe we should always do in the law. The other value is making advances on Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and spinal cord injuries.

I think when you have such a conflict of well-meaning people, such a conflict of values, that life ought to always prevail. I am hoping very much our pro-life president will stand by his word in the past, that he will say no to federal funding that will involve the destruction of human embryos for the purpose of research.

COSSACK: Congressman Pence, many pro-life people -- Orrin Hatch, Jesse Helms -- have come out in favor of this funding -- people whose credentials are impeccable on the pro-life side. How do you justify your position with their position?

PENCE: I reconcile it by my belief that adult stem cell research is pro-life, but destroying embryonic human life for the purpose of research is simply not pro-life.

Let me take issue, very respectfully, with a comment that Jim made, that the overwhelming medical evidence suggests that breakthroughs are over horizon if we begin process of expanding the federal funding for research in this regard, The truth is, Roger, that there has been not a single medical breakthrough involving the destruction of a human embryo or any type of embryonic stem cell research. Every breakthrough that's been talked about on the House floor in the debates that Jim and I have participated in were breakthroughs using adult stem cells.

I'm someone who, as conservative as I am, Roger, would support -- and hope the president would support -- a strong increase in federal funding for adult stem cell research, to tackle these onerous diseases.

COSSACK: Congressman Ramstad, that does seem to be part of the gist, if you will, of the debate between pro-life and pro-choice forces in this situation, the notion of using adult stem cells, rather than embryonic -- your position?

RAMSTAD: First of all -- and I respect my friend and colleague, and I appreciate his kind words, but he needs to talk to Dr. Ron Petersen, part of the Alzheimer's research team at the Mayo Clinic. He needs to talk to the University of Minnesota stem cell center physicians and researchers. He needs to talk to the scientists at the National Institutes of Health. There are breakthrough technologies within a matter of years -- for Alzheimer's, five years; juvenile diabetes, five to seven years. We can't afford not to do this research, to do the right thing for the American people. We also need to listen to most pro-life -- one of most pro-life senators, Orrin Hatch, who put it best when he said -- and nobody can question his pro-life credentials -- Orrin said life begins in the womb or the uterus, not in a petri dish in a refrigerator.

Now, I respect the opposite view, but nobody is more pro-life than Orrin Hatch, former Senator Connie Mack, Senator Gordon Smith, Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health human services. All of them have impeccable pro-life credentials. And they understand that we're talking about surplus embryos. Embryos that otherwise, as Christopher Reeve put it the other night, would be thrown in the garbage.

Now, why not use these? It seems to me and to them, as Orrin Hatch said, the real-pro life position is to use these stem cells from surplus embryos to extend life, to save lives, to enhance the quality of life for 100 million Americans... COSSACK: Congressman Pence, I do want to give you a chance to respond. But what I suppose I'm interested in is I notice that the debate is framed now between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. But how can you be in a position of saying that, even if you assume that the breakthroughs have made with adult stem cells that embryonic stem cells wouldn't be even better.


COSSACK: I want to let Mike Pence answer that, Congressman Ramstad. I'm sorry; go ahead.

RAMSTAD: I'm sorry.

PENCE: That's quite all right.

Let me say that we've seen testing, and maybe the researchers who will join us later in the program can speak to it, but we've seen research done with both adult stem cells in mammals and embryonic stem cells, and frankly, as Senator Sam Brownback said to me in a meeting recently with Karl Rove, what they've seen in some cases where they've injected embryonic stem cells into mice has been devastation.

He said it as though reminding us that you cannot put new wine into old wine skins, Roger. That the embryonic stem cells grow into the adult animal and they begin to reproduce in a cancerous fashion, to devastating effect.

I think Jim makes his points with passion and with clarity. I think the bottom-line issue here is that reasonable minds can differ. But Roger, I simply do not believe you should take tax dollars of millions of Americans who find the destruction of human embryos for research objectionable and use that to fund research.

COSSACK: All right, let me bring in Dr. Arthur Caplan from Philadelphia.

Dr. Caplan, we've been hearing a debate between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, the issue being that we can get what we need from adult stem cells just as well as embryonic stem cells, so why go into that, obviously, land mine-filled area.

ARTHUR CAPLAN, BIOETHICIST: Well, I wish we knew that we could get what we need from just adult stem cells. Unfortunately, we can't.

It's not clear what adult stem cells are going to do for cures; it's not clear what embryo stem cells are going to do for cures. And I think the real moral question is, if you're in a wheelchair, are you going to be told that we're not going to pursue every avenue to get you out that wheelchair because we're not going to take embryos that are doomed for destruction.

What Congress Ramstad has been talking about is the surplus, or frozen embryos. There are 100,000 of them, and we're not going to use them because we have more respect for them than we do for your real needs in terms of disease and disability. I think that the science right now is uncertain. We may get far with adult stem cells, we may not; we may get far with embryo stem cells, we may not. But if I'm looking at people with these terrible disorders and afflictions, I have to say I come down strongly on the needs of those here and now with problems, rather than trying to respect, I suppose, the potential that be there in these embryos which are going to wind up not being used. Their fate, if you will, is in the hands of the people who operating the freezers. They have no possibility of going anywhere except toward destruction.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Many people consider human cloning to be morally distasteful and highly dangerous; and others claim that cloning has valid scientific uses. Who's to decide? Stay with us.


Gregory Coleman, a key prosecution witness in the murder trial of Michael Skakel, was found dead Tuesday morning of an apparent drug overdose. Skakel is on trial for the 1975 murder of his neighbor Martha Moxley.




DR. HARRY GRIFFIN, ROSLIN BIOCENTRE INSTITUTE: We believe it would be wholly irresponsible to use the technology that created Dolly five years ago to clone a child.



BRIGITTE BOISSELIER, CLONAID: There are people who cannot have a child with their own genes, and they have heard about cloning. If there are hopes, if there is a technology, you should be aware that this will be done.


COSSACK: Five years ago scientists took cells from a sheep and created a new sheep, a perfect genetic copy of the first. This clone, Dolly, started a debate that continues to divide the nation. Can and should we clone a human? Now this week, three scientists announced their intentions to do just that.

Before I get into the specific issue of cloning, I want to talk to Dr. David Prentice for a moment about the adult stem cell debate that we were just having regarding the embryo stem cell debate.

Dr. Prentice, you take a rather different view of the necessity of using embryonic stem cells, don't you? DAVID PRENTICE, CELL BIOLOGY PROFESSOR: Yes I do. I believe the adult stem cells, if you look at the vast -- weight the scientific evidence, are actually the ones that are showing all the successes. They're being used clinically now to treat patients for multiple sclerosis, for heart disease, to grow new corneas to restore sight to blind patients.

The adult stem cells are the ones that are showing successes in the animal studies. Reverses diabetes in mice, treating heart disease, liver disease, stroke. All the diseases that keep being mentioned as the promises for the embryonic stem cells are the ones that the adult stem cells are already showing that they can treat.

COSSACK: But doctor, the argument, I suppose, is that unless we use embryonic stem cells, and there are a great many scientists who believe that that really is the future -- unless we use embryonic stem cells, we will never be able to see what the promise that they hold may be, and that perhaps we are missing an ability to really cure these diseases you mentioned.

PRENTICE: Well, I would say that it's totally unnecessary to use the embryonic. Again, the adult stem cells are the ones that, as Senator Daschle mentioned, are showing the weekly progression terms of the successes and advances.

What you also don't tend to hear very often are the negatives of the embryonic. The idea admitted by those who work with them, that when injected into animals these cells form tumors. The possibility of transplant rejection and, in fact, a recent study that showed that embryonic stem cells themselves are genetically unstable.

COSSACK: Dr. Caplan, how do you respond to this medical debate that perhaps embryonic stem cells are not as good as adult, that they form tumors, and that they are not as easily trained as adult stem cells?

CAPLAN: Well, I'd respond very simply: The discovery of human embryonic stem cells took place nor more than two years ago. Nobody knows what their potential is. They may have dangers, as Dr. Prentice just talked about. They may be wondrous in terms of growing certain kinds of cell, brain, nervous tissue, spinal cord, that we don't know what to do with with adult stem cells.

The bottom-line question really is, why not place bets across- the-board, do embryo stem cell research, see where that goes, do adult stem cell research and see where that goes. The only argument against that is some people believe that to work on an embryo destined for destruction is still disrespectful of life. I don't hold that position.

Scientifically it don't make any sense not to try to go with all strategies to fight these terrible diseases.

COSSACK: Dr. Caplan, there are other ways to produce embryonic stem cells besides what we have talked about. One of the other ways would be cloning. Are you in favor of cloning? CAPLAN: Well, I think that you can use adult cells, take the DNA out of them and put them into eggs and explore the possibility of, if you will, these created, cloned embryos for research.

I don't believe that they are any more likely to be people or have the potential to become people than these spare human embryos. In fact, despite these pronouncements by various alleged scientists that they're going to clone someone tomorrow morning or do it on a boat, we don't know whether human cloning is actually possible at all.

So I do favor allowing some form of research with those cells. What I am against completely is allowing any attempt to turn that creation into a person. I'm against human cloning.

COSSACK: Dr. Prentice, your views on cloning. Is this a way to avoid the embryonic stem cell debate?

PRENTICE: Well, not really; it just gets us back into the debate.

But if I could respond to a couple of things Dr. Caplan had said, he mentioned that we've only had the human embryonic stem cells about two to three years. But we've had mouse embryonic for 20 years now, and we still haven't seen any successes, even in the animals studies.

As far as the embryos that are supposedly going to be thrown away, we have 6 to 10 million infertile couples in the United States who could adopt, through programs such as the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program, those 100,000 embryos.

In terms of making those embryos, then, for research purposes, trying to ban just the implantation versus the research aspect, there's no way that that can be done. There's no possible oversight we could have. Instead what we're going to be doing is producing embryos solely for research purposes; essentially creating a caste system of lesser humans for scientific sacrifice.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Up next: What does the future hold for medical research? And are these experiments going to advance science, or are they dangerous and unethical? Stay with us.


Q: Why are two former Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders suing 23 NFL teams, their players and employees?

A: For peeping into the cheerleaders' dressing room. The players allegedly drilled holes in the adjoining wall between the visitors' locker room and the cheerleaders' dressing room.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COSSACK: Tonight President George Bush will make his long- awaited announcement about government funding of stem cell research. The public debate about this issue has raised many questions about the long-term consequences of biotechnology.

Professor Caplan, let's assume that President Bush comes out tonight and says the he's against federal funding. That doesn't mean that this kind of research won't go ahead, it will just go ahead with private money rather than federal money; isn't that correct?

CAPLAN; That's right, Roger. And it will also go ahead oversees. Remember, a number of countries have already said -- Singapore, Britain being two examples -- that they're going to accept this.

So we are going to see the research move. The fact is, federal money using federal resources really is going to make it move much, much faster. And when I talk to people, patients who are in wheelchairs, who are dying of diabetes, they say I don't have time, I can't wait for it to go slowly, please speed that up.

The other issue is if it's done privately it's done out of sight. We can't regulate whether they're making embryos or what they're doing. And it's going to be patented early, it's going to cost us a lot more money that way.

COSSACK: Dr. Prentice, that argument about regulation, I think, is an important one, because I think what Dr. Caplan says -- that this is going forward, this train is running whether or not we're on board here in America or not is a good one. I mean, isn't it better for federal funding to be involved for just, if nothing more, the regulations?

PRENTICE: Well, these private companies still want to make a buck off of their research, so there will still, even with federal funding, be research done behind the closed doors because they're interested in maintaining their rights.

Likewise, I think the federal oversight isn't perfect. We've seen examples of abuses in the past; death, even, of patients involved. I think the scientists at this point are offering promises simply in exchange for federal grant dollars.

COSSACK: Congressman Pence, your prediction on what President Bush will do this evening.

PENCE: Roger, I think the president will do right thing. He will stand by not only his word, when he pledged throughout the campaign and even earlier this year that he would oppose the use of federal tax dollars to do destructive embryonic stem cell research. But I also do believe that the president will communicate it in such a way that reflects great respect for people on every side of this issue. But at the end of the day, he'll choose life.

COSSACK: Congressman Ramstad, I believe that you probably have a different view. RAMSTAD: Well, I hope and pray the president will do right thing and support federal funding for this life-saving, life-enhancing research. I have every confidence that the president will do it. I know he's anguished long and hard, and I respect him for that. But I truly hope that he supports funding for embryonic stem cell research.

COSSACK: Congressman Ramstad, we have 10 or 15 seconds left. If the president turns down federal funding, will there be strong action and support in the Congress to go forward with this?

RAMSTAD: Like the majority of the American people, the majority of the House and that Senate support federal funding. And there will be legislation in both bodies to provide such funding.

COSSACK: All right. Thanks, that's all the time we have today. Thanks to our guests, thank you for watching.

And today on "TALKBACK LIVE": Weigh in on the debate surrounding stem cell research. Send your e-mail to Bobbie Battista and tune in at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

We're going to be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll see you then.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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