Leon Kass, MD, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics,
hosted a conference call with reporters on Thursday, May 12, to discuss
the Council's recently issued White Paper: "Alternative Sources
of Pluripotent Stem Cells." Material added to the transcript
for clarification has been posted in brackets.
Altenative sources of pluripotent stem cells: teleconference
Leon Kass, MD, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics
Amy Balszyk, National Public Radio
Jeannie Baumann, Bureau of National Affairs
Maggie Fox, Reuters
Heather Gagmon, ISSCR
Susan Goldstein, PBS Religion and Ethics
Murray Jacobson, News Hour with Jim Lehrer
Claudia Kalb, Newsweek
Molly Laas, Blue Sheet/Washington Fax
Nancy O'Brien, Catholic News Service
Joe Palca, National Public Library
Susan Poland, Georgetown, Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Bioethics
Valerie Schmalz, National Catholic Register
Nicholas Wade, New York Times
Laurie Zoloth, Bioethics, Northwestern University
May 12, 2005
11:45 a.m. CDT
Coordinator: Good afternoon, and thank you for
standing by. At this time we will begin the conference with a role
call. Do I have Heather Gagnon of ISSCR?
H. Gagnon: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. Susan Goldstein, PBS Religion
S. Goldstein: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. Valerie Schmalz, National
V. Schmalz: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. Molly Lass?
M. Lass: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. Susan Poland of Georgetown?
S. Poland: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. Amy Balszyk of National
Male voice: I think that’s National Public
Radio, and I think she’s here.
Coordinator: Thank you. Jeannie Baumann of BNA?
J. Bowman: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. Nicholas Wade, New York
N. Wade: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. Nancy O’Brien, Catholic
N. O’Brien: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. Claudia Kalb of Newsweek?
C. Kalb: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. Joel Palca, National Public
J. Palca: Yes.
Coordinator: Thank you. And once again, I do have
Dr. Leon Kass joining the conference. I would like to inform all
participants that today’s call is being recorded. If anyone
has any objections, you may disconnect at this time. At this time
all lines will be on “listen-only” until the question-and-answer
session of the conference. I would now like to turn the call over
to your conference host this afternoon, Dr. Leon Kass. Sir, you
L. Kass: Thank you very much, and thanks
to all of you on this conference call. Welcome to this conversation
in connection with the release of the President’s Council
on Bioethics’ White Paper, “Alternative Sources of Human
Pluripotent Stem Cells,” that was transmitted to the President
on May 10th.
I thank you for your interest in the Council’s work. I trust
that you will have seen the advance copy of the White Paper itself
as well as the press release that we sent out. If anybody is interested,
as of 1:00 this afternoon, a PDF and an HTML version of the report
are now on our Web site, www.bioethics.gov.
In these opening remarks I want to do three things. I want to say
why we are publishing this White Paper. I want briefly to give you
an overview of its contents, and finish, third, with our provisional
conclusions and a couple of remarks again about the significance
of this report at this particular time.
First, as to the why of this White Paper: As I’m sure all
of you know, human embryonic stem cells hold great interest and
present research opportunities of great moment and promise, primarily
because of their pluripotency—their capacity to give rise
to the various specialized cells of the body—and because of
their self-renewing longevity, their ability to be propagated in
this form for many generations in laboratory culture without losing
As you all also know, until now these cells have been obtainable
only from living human embryos at the blastocyst stage of development
by a process that necessarily destroys the embryos, and that therefore
makes this research ethically controversial. And again, no one needs
to be told about the ethical controversy over stem cell research.
Embryonic stem cell research has been the subject of federal and
state legislation and public policy and of ongoing public debate
that continues to the present day.
The President’s Council on Bioethics is constituted in a
commitment to the twin goals of advancing biomedical science and,
at the same time, upholding ethical norms. Council members have
sharp disagreements, ethical differences, especially on the moral
status of the human embryo, but all of us collectively have recognized
that all parties to this debate have something vital to defend and
not only for themselves but for all of us.
This is a very important point; it is the point of departure of
this report. In our first report, Human Cloning and Human Dignity,
we had a split recommendation on the ethics of doing cloning-for-biomedical-research,
but all of us agreed with the following statement: “All parties
to the debate have concerns vital to defend, vital not only to themselves
but to all of us. No human being and no society can afford to be
callous to the needs of suffering humanity, or cavalier about the
treatment of nascent human life, or indifferent to the social effects
of adopting one course of action rather than another.”
Further, as members of a national bioethics body we are mindful
of the need to understand and respect the strongly held ethical
views of our fellow citizens even when we do not share them.
For these reasons we have chosen always to be receptive to any
creative, scientific or technical suggestions that might find a
way around this ethical dilemma and the ethical impasse that we
now face, and that might enable scientists to proceed with their
research but in ways that would neither raise ethical questions
nor violate the ethical principles of many Americans.
It has been with this in mind that we have taken a particular interest
in specific proposals, now being advanced in several quarters, that
would enable scientists to obtain pluripotent, genetically stable,
and long-lived human stem cells by methods that would meet the moral
standard of not destroying or endangering human embryos in the process.
If such methods could be found, promising scientific research with
pluripotent [embryonic-like] stem cells could proceed, funded by
the federal government, without ethical qualms or controversy. It’s
our submission that all morally serious and public-spirited people
should welcome such a resolution to the current vexing dilemma,
a solution that avoids the ethical difficulty and our sometimes
bitter national and political divisions. This report is conceived
in that morally serious and public-spirited attitude, and it is
written in order to advance it in the current polarized climate.
Before moving into the content of the report itself, I want to
stress one conceptual point. Embryonic stem cells are, to repeat,
attractive for two reasons. First, their pluripotency, their capacity
to turn into any of the specialized cells of the body, and second,
their stable and long-lived capacity for self- renewal in tissue
culture without losing that pluripotency.
But if one could get cells that are functionally equivalent to
the pluripotent cells that are now derived from living embryos,
it should not matter to scientists what their source has been. The
goal is not embryonic stem cells because they are cells that come
from embryos, but stem cells of whatever origin that nonetheless
have the full capacities both of pluripotency and self-renewal that
embryonic stem cells have. It is with a view to finding the functional
equivalent of the embryonic stem cells now available that we have
embarked upon the consideration of these proposals.
Second, let’s talk about the proposals themselves. The bulk
of the report reviews four distinct possible methods for obtaining
such pluripotent human stem cells. First, they could be derived
by extracting cells from embryos that have already died. Not just
the ones [embryos] that are doomed to die because no one wants them,
but embryos that one can pronounce dead because they are no longer
doing what the organism at that stage does. I’ll return to
Second alternative: [cells might be obtained] by non-harmful biopsy
of living embryos, analogous to the procedure now used to do preimplantation
genetic diagnosis, looking for genetic disorders, in in vitro fertilization
A third proposal, one that has already received a fair amount of
attention in the press, [cells might be obtained] by extracting
cells from artificially created nonembryonic—but embryo-like—cellular
systems that have been engineered to lack certain essential elements
of embryogenesis but still have some cell division and growth. And
the hope is that this biological artifact, which would lack the
ontological and moral status of the human embryo, might still be
a source of pluripotent stem cells. The White Paper considers a
specific proposal, “Altered Nuclear Transfer,” as the
means for attempting this particular method.
Finally, the attempt to get pluripotent human stem cells by dedifferentiation:
by reprogramming specialized somatic cells back to the pluripotency
of their beginnings. To take cells like skin cells or liver cells
and by proper stimuli or growth in proper circumstances or by fusion
with other cells of a different sort, to get them to go in reverse
and return themselves to the pluripotent condition.
I should point out that both proposal three and proposal four offer
the opportunity of getting individualized and personalized stem
cells identical to the source of the nucleus, genetically identical
to the source of the somatic cell. So these two proposals would
give you pluripotent stem cells of known genetic identity and presumably
potentially useful, ultimately, should therapies emerge from this,
of being restored to the original donor without the danger of immune
Now the report conducts what can only be, at this stage, a preliminary
hearing of these proposals, an analysis of their respective strengths
and weaknesses, ethical, scientific, and practical, with special
attention to the ethical analysis. We give the ethical analysis
special because that is our primary concern, but also because the
scientific and practical merits of these proposals are in large
part empirical matters, and they cannot be settled in advance by
We don’t know which of these proposals might succeed. But
we are trying to see whether they would pass ethical muster and
to give some special encouragement for people in those cases where
we think the proposals do meet the ethical threshold, cross the
ethical threshold, to see if people would be energetic in their
pursuit of testing the scientific validity and practical utility
of these proposals.
Now, if you’ve seen the document, I don’t have to go
through the analysis in detail, but let me just be clear that you
understand what each of these proposals entails. The first proposal
derives cells from embryos already dead. The ethical argument sees
this as ethically analogous to the use of organs and tissues obtained
postmortem, after the death of the donor. The early human embryo
is an organic whole whose cells divide in concert. And when all
coordinated cell division ceases, the embryo is dead as an organism.
But some of its individual cells may still be viable, and, if extracted
and cultured, they may be coaxed to develop into stem cells.
This has not yet been tried, not even in animals, though I understand
that the proponents of this approach are in the process of beginning
to gear up to do some of the research.
The second proposal takes advantage of the fact that we now do
biopsy of living in vitro fertilized embryos, as I indicated before,
to do preimplantation genetic diagnosis. One or two blastomeres
are removed from a roughly eight-cell embryo prior to its transfer
to initiate a pregnancy. Live born children numbering in the several
thousands have been born [after undergoing this procedure when embryos].
One doesn’t know fully the risks of this procedure, but it’s
at least conceivable that one could biopsy living IVF embryos in
those cases prior to transfer in an attempt to produce a child.
If this were not harmful to the resulting child, those isolated
blastomeres might be coaxed to develop into stem cells.
The third proposal, more complicated to explain, is to try to construct
a biological artifact, a certain cellular system that would be “embryoid”
or embryo-like, but that would not be an embryo because, from the
start, it would have been engineered in such a way that it could
not proceed through embryogenesis. It would be more analogous to
some of the teratomas that form from gametes and reproductive tissue.
The one proposal that we have for doing this would be to use nuclear
transfer or cloning-for-biomedical-research technology, but to modify
the nucleus before it’s introduced into the enucleated egg
in such a way that that genetic alteration in the nucleus would
render the product not an embryo proper but cells that will divide
only so far, so that it would lack from the start the ability to
form a human embryo. Hence the removal of cells to produce stem
cells from such an entity would not be a destruction of an embryo,
it not being an embryo in the first place.
Finally, there are a series of possibilities of taking somatic
cells—and (1) by culturing them under conditions normally
used to culture embryonic stem cells, or (2) by fusing them with
other cells, or (3) by extracting factors from oocytes that seem
to be able to convert somatic cell nuclei in cloning procedures—and
reprogramming them to a more undifferentiated state. The objective
here would be to get ordinary body cells to revert to the primordial
state of pluripotency.
Those are the proposals. I won’t review the ethical arguments.
They are indexed in the Table of Contents. I will just give you
then in closing, a review of our conclusions. The Council has no
unanimous recommendations to make, not primarily because we are
in disagreement, although some of us have preferences amongst these
We think it is premature to recommend one or another of these proposals
because so much needs to be done scientifically and because there
are still ethical considerations to be argued about, in part based
upon what the empirical studies would show.
However, in conclusion on the limited threshold question, “Does
this proposal appear to meet a minimum ethical standard to justify
serious consideration and further scientific exploration?”,
we did reach the following provisional conclusions: The first proposal
to derive stem cells from organismically dead embryos, although
it raised some serious ethical questions, we found this proposal
to be ethically acceptable for basic investigation, even in humans,
provided that the stringent guidelines mentioned in the document
The second proposal, blastomere extraction from living embryos,
we found unacceptable ethically in humans because we do not believe
that one should impose risks on living embryos destined to become
children for the sake of getting stem cells for research. One might
try this in animals, but it’s not clear to us how the results
from animal experimentation could alter this assessment of the ethical
impropriety of doing this in humans.
A third proposal, cells from specially engineered biological artifacts,
produced the most controversy within the group. A few of us are
not eager to endorse even animal or other laboratory work investigating
the potential human applications. But most of us believe that this
proposal offers enough promise to justify animal experimentation
at this time, both to offer proof of feasibility and utility and
to get evidence bearing on some of the ethical issues, most importantly
on whether this is or is not an embryo that’s defective or
whether it is just an embryo-like but non-embryonic body. Since
the proposal by the proponents is simply to do the animal work first,
the large majority of us are in favor of seeing that tried.
Finally, the fourth proposal of cells obtained by somatic cell
dedifferentiation, we find this proposal to be entirely unproblematic
ethically and acceptable for use in humans, and would like to see
the efforts, already begun along these lines, continued.
We are presenting these proposals at this time, precisely because
we think that we ought to be trying to find a way around our ethical
impasse. And while these four proposals that are before us now seem
most worthy of analysis at this time, we think it’s possible,
indeed likely, that other avenues to human pluripotent stem cells
not requiring the destruction of human embryos may be proposed or
discovered in the future.
We are not intending to exclude any of these additional alternatives.
On the contrary, part of the reason for publishing this now is to
encourage scientists creatively to devise other and better proposals
and to highlight the appeal of this large and morally responsible
purpose to find ways to advance pluripotent stem cell research that
all of our fellow citizens can wholeheartedly support.
This end is, in the view of the Council, a desirable goal for our
society and one that justifies, we think, making the extra effort
to seek out, to assess, and to attempt new, ethically uncontroversial
methods of stem cell derivation. This, by the way, would set a very
nice precedent for similar kinds of ethical controversies that we
know are coming.
It’s much better to see if we can use our ingenuity to find
some way in which we don’t have to either have a permanent
stand-off, each side morally at war with the other, or a forced
political solution that will alienate a large segment of our population
as the price of victory for one side. This is a wonderful way forward
if it can be scientifically demonstrated. I think that people of
good will and public spirit ought to be very interested in this
With that somewhat more long-winded summary than I’d intended,
let me just open the conversation to your questions. I thank you
again for your interest.
Coordinator Thank you. At this time, we’re ready to begin
the question and answer session. Our first question comes from Nicholas
Wade. You may ask your question.
N. Wade: Hi, Dr. Kass.
L. Kass: Hello, Mr. Wade. Nice to hear
N. Wade: Nice to hear yours, as always.
I have a two-part question. One is that in the long history of presidential
bioethical commissions, this seems to be the first one that I can
recall where there has been a split between the ethicists and the
scientists who usually find there’s a lot of common ground.
But in this case, the two members of your committee, who I would
characterize as being hands-on research scientists, Michael Gazzaniga
and Janet Rowley, have worded quite sharp dissents. Gazzaniga saying
all these are “high-risk gambles” and Rowley is saying
that one of the, the first proposal, is the height of folly.
If you can’t keep the research scientists on board, why should
the scientific community listen to you, if you haven’t persuaded
even your own members who are scientists? So, could you comment
first of all on this split which has occurred not only in this report
but also, as you mentioned in the previous one on therapeutic cloning,
and second, isn’t the range of your authority or moral suasion
sharply limited by the fact you’ve not managed to keep these
research scientists on board?
L. Kass: Well, the two research scientists
differ slightly. By the way, there are three other physicians. One
of them is in fact a research scientist as well, Dr. Foster, who
has endorsed this report as written. Dr. Paul McHugh at Johns Hopkins,
and Dr. Ben Carson are physicians and they have endorsed this report.
Dr. Gazzaniga, [and they can speak for themselves], he simply wants
us to go ahead with the research without seeking a way around this
moral dilemma, partly because he doesn’t personally feel this
moral dilemma himself. And he is in print on this. He doesn’t
see what the fuss is about, about the embryo. Therefore he doesn’t
seem to have an interest in trying to find a solution since he,
I think, believes that the opposition to this research is, as he
will put it, based upon “the arbitrary views” of people
“with certain beliefs about the nature of life and its origins.”
I think he is the only person on the Council who has that view that
treats the human embryo, until its got a brain, as the moral equivalent
of lumber in Home Depot. In your newspaper, I think the other day,
he [was quoted] as saying as much.
Dr. Rowley is, I think, she in fact reserves some judgment for
the fourth proposal that doesn’t involve embryos, that this
proposal should be submitted to the NIH and if it passes peer review
with sufficiently high score to be funded, research would go forward.
Her major concern about this is that to do this research you will
be draining financial resources from the already under-funded research
in this area.
But I would point out that at the present time there is a limitation
on federal funding of this research, Congressionally mandated, as
a matter of fact, and some scientists are interested in developing
new [stem cell] lines. And since they are interested in developing
new lines with genetic heterogeneity and even with determined genomes,
it seems to me that people who would be interested in increasing
federal funding for this kind of research might in fact have a positive
interest in at least having some resources, possibly even federal
funding, available to try to develop these new lines [by these alternative
methods—since they might then be eligible for federal funding].
There have been certain a priori objections to some of these proposals
from scientists. But I’m sort of astonished. I’ve always
thought that scientists were loath to rely on a priori speculations,
that they really ought to be interested in getting the evidence.
There are some scientists, and I could give you some names if you
would like, of people who have expressed an interest in this and
who are even themselves investigating some of these possibilities,
most especially the reprogramming and the dedifferentiation track,
Even since this report went to press, there have been articles
published and reports made at meetings which suggest [great promise
in this area]. There is an unpublished report in which mature mouse
cells have apparently been reverted to pluripotency, through experiments
that fuse them with mouse embryonic stem cells in which the resulting
cells are genetically identical to the somatic cell. Somehow the
nucleus of the embryonic stem cell has managed to contribute to
the reprogramming [of the somatic cell].
There are serious scientists at work on this. And this is, in a
way, an invitation to the scientists who I think, by the way, also
have a stake in not simply permanently alienating this large segment
of the population. If there is a way to go forward for the scientists
to proceed with the political and moral blessings of the community
as a whole, how much the better wouldn’t that be for science?
N. Wade: If you’d allow me, a follow-on
question. To repeat the previous question, as the outsider looking
in, there are two committees that have now, within the last few
weeks, opined on this issue. The one from the National Academy of
Scientists has ethicists and scientists who came together and agreed
in the usual way. So that is an agreed consensus position between
ethicists and scientists of the type we’ve been used to seeing
from presidential bioethics committees.
But your committee has, as I said, come out with a largely split
or substantially split decision. So which group of ethicists should
the man in the street prefer, the ones who seem to have found common
ground with the scientists or the one who seem to be off by themselves
in a different place? My basic point is, surely your conclusions
would be more persuasive if you had kept your scientists on board,
which you have not.
L. Kass: I repeat, we’ve kept some
of them on board, if you read those dissents carefully. In the second
case [Dr. Rowley’s], it is not an objection to the effort
except if it’s a drain on resources, although one of the proposals
comes in for rather harsh remarks from Dr. Rowley. But look, if
you get yourself the right kind of bioethicists who share the basic
world view and moral sensibilities of the scientists, of course
you’re going to find consensus.
This is the first national bioethics council that is, in fact,
ethically heterogeneous. The previous ones may have had one token
pro-life member. We’ve got half a dozen. That is much more
representative of the nation as a whole. [But if a scientific academy]
gets our [scientific] experts and your [ethical] experts together
[but] who [all] basically share the same metaphysical world view,
who don’t regard nascent human life as anything to be worried
very much about, [then you have a less diverse committee, one that’s
much more likely to reach consensus because they already agree on
the core issues]
Without meaning to criticize the report of the National Academy
of Sciences, one should simply recognize that they have accepted
the basic question as settled, that it’s not only not problematic
to use the spare embryos, but it’s morally acceptable [even]
to create embryos solely for research, both by cloning and by in
vitro fertilization. If you’ve jumped past that hurdle, you’ve
in a way begged the major question about which the country really
is divided. And of course you can get a [favorable] hearing amongst
those people who share those views.
But we are much closer in our diversity and heterogeneity to the
facts [regarding] the county as a whole, and this particular document
is an attempt to try to speak to the country as whole, [looking
for an alternative] that does not force a political solution that
will alienate the losing side, or worse, that allows this controversy
to fester because there are people on both sides who don’t
want to compromise and who would just as soon rub the other side’s
nose in defeat.
So I think, quite frankly, what we have here is an extremely ethically
diverse group and sure, we could solve our problems by appointing
ethicists who in every fundamental respect don’t really differ
from the scientific community whose work they’re supposed
to scrutinize and to some degree restrain.
N. Wade: Okay, thank you.
Coordinator: Dr. Kass, at this time we show no
L. Kass: Is this it?
Coordinator: Actually, Nicholas Wade, of New York
Times has just queued up. Sir, you may ask your question.
N. Wade: I’ll actually ask another
question if no one else is doing so right now.
L. Kass: I like talking to you, Mr. Wade.
N. Wade: Thank you. This is a somewhat
technical question but I noticed that in discussing the Dickey Amendment,
you point out that the use of federal funds for research and cells
derived by someone else’s prior destruction of a living embryo
violates the spirit of the Dickey Amendment. Did not part of Bush’s
August 9 policy also violate the spirit of the Dickey Amendment
in that precise sense?
L. Kass: Well there are people who think
so, Mr. Wade, and there is controversy about it. But this is not
the first thing the Council has done on stem cells, as you know.
We published a report in January of 2004, if my dates aren’t
wrong, Monitoring Stem Cell Research, in which there is a long discussion
indeed of the underlying moral and legal principles of that decision.
That decision was really to allow, for the first time, federal
funds to be used precisely because the destructive act had already
taken place, but to do so in such a way that it did not provide
incentives or reward future destruction of embryos of the sort that
Congress has expressed itself being interested to forefend. The
President, in so doing, reaffirmed the principles that life may
not be exploited for the benefit of others.
It’s a tough call but if you’re asking me for my personal
opinion, I do not think that the President’s current policy
violates either the spirit or the letter of doing so. I think what
would violate the spirit, if not the letter, would be proposals
that say, “Let people in the private sector destroy the embryos
and produce the stem cells and then the government can fund [research
on] them with a clean conscience.” It might fit with the letter
of the law, but it surely doesn’t fit with the spirit of it.
N. Wade: Okay, thank you.
L. Kass: Could I say one more thing to
you, Mr. Wade?
N. Wade: Sure.
L. Kass: There are several personal statements at the end
of the document. I meant to call attention to them. But what’s
striking to me here is that while the press is interested in the
controversy, I think what’s really quite striking is that
there has been an effort here responding to some efforts being made
in the scientific community, from scientists not necessarily represented
on the Council, that science really can contribute a way around
this ethical difficulty.
It does not merely have to be partisan on one side. I think the
message of this report is, “Here is an invitation. Here is
the showing of a way forward.” And I don’t see why one
should, in this particular scientific matter, stand on the sidelines
and say, “This won’t work,” when it has yet to
be tested and could be tested relatively economically.
I would underscore the absolute ease of proposal number one in
which you do natural history studies of embryos that have reached
cleavage arrest, and see if cells taken from those dead embryos
can in fact be turned into stem cells. I would also emphasize the
great excitement—I’m sure that you will be reading about
it in the months to come—about efforts to dedifferentiate
[or reprogram] somatic cells [back to pluripotency] so that you’ll
never have to go through an embryo and you would get pluripotent
stem cells which are personalized and of known genetic origin. Wouldn’t
that be terrific?
N. Wade: Okay, thank you.
Coordinator: Our next question does come from
Joel Palca, of National Public Radio. You may ask your question.
J. Palca: Hi, Dr. Kass. Following on to the comments
you’ve just made, I wonder if you’ve had any discussion
either with the White House or the Department of Health and Human
Services or the National Institutes of Health, to encourage them
possibly, to be more proactive? Instead of perhaps waiting for the
scientific community to respond to this broad appeal, to have the
Administration say, “We’re actually putting our money
on the table and if you want to make a proposal that would embrace
one of these avenues, we’ll make some money available to you.”
I know that is not your job, of course, but I wondered if you’d
gone to the White House and said, “Here, we’ve got these
ideas, but we need your support.”
L. Kass: Thank you for the question. The White House has . . . Because
these conversations in the Council have received much publicity
in the press going back to our December meeting of last year, the
White House is of course aware of these discussions and I know that
they were quite interested in this White Paper.
One of the reasons, I think, why we produced a White Paper rather
than wait and wait and wait until more data is accumulated, is precisely
that we would like to send a signal of encouragement and hope that
the White House will pick up on this. They have to digest the ethical
analysis and try to decide which of these things might in fact be
eligible for federal funding.
We discuss arguments about the eligibility for funding. But whether
it’s prudent to invest your money in these proposals depends
in part on what else the budget has to support. That is a call that
our Council cannot make. We’ve sent advance copies of this
[White Paper] to Dr. Zerhouni, to Secretary Leavitt. And I imagine
that there will be conversations in those places in the immediate
I would like to see some kind of encouragement. Speaking not as
the chairman of the Council but speaking for myself personally,
I would like to see some encouragement of requests for applications.
That doesn’t commit anybody to funding them. They have to
pass scientific muster. But if clever people are out there showing
how you can dedifferentiate somatic cells to get pluripotent stem
cells without going through embryos, let them come forward. And
if those proposals measure up, I for one would certainly like to
see this Administration encourage their funding.
J. Palca: Okay, thank you.
Coordinator: Our next question comes from Maggie
Fox of Reuters. You may ask you question.
M. Fox: Well, Dr. Kass, right on that subject,
I know from the very beginning when I’ve talked to some people
like Dr. Gearhart, they say that’s exactly what they want
to study embryonic stem cells for. They don’t want to have
to continue using embryos because if nothing else, ethical considerations
aside, it’s cumbersome. This is exactly what they need to
study the embryonic study stem cells for is to find out what the
mechanisms are so that they can activate those mechanisms (in the)…
L. Kass: Right. First, let’s all be clear. A fair amount of
demagoguery has produced a widespread belief that there is a federal
ban on embryonic stem cell research. There is no such ban. On the
contrary, there is in fact federal funding for human embryonic stem
cell research, without limit as to the amount, the only restriction
being that the [embryonic stem cell] lines which are eligible for
funded research have to have been derived, and therefore the embryo-
destroying deed having had to take place, prior to the President’s
making of his decision. The rationale for that, we don’t have
to go into now, but it’s in the Council’s Monitoring
Stem Cell Research report.
To take a specific example, it would be possible, at least in principle
(and it is being discussed now), that you could use some of the
stem cell lines that are eligible for federal funding . . . —[of
the eligible lines] numbering somewhere in the low 70s, some 22
or 23 are now actually available, characterized and out there in
use—one could use those embryonic stem cell lines, eligible
for federal funding, and try to see if fusing somatic cells with
those embryonic stem cells would lead to the dedifferentiation of
human somatic cells to produce pluripotent cell lines with known
genetic makeup. [A specific experiment of somatic cell reprogramming.]
There is nothing in the present law, or it seems to me, in the
present funding restrictions, that would preclude that kind of research.
Congress is still on record as saying, “Federal funds may
not be used in research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed.”
That’s still the law. The question is, within the constraints
of that law, the President has found ways to support that research
and that research goes forward.
There are scientists who feel it’s not going forward rapidly
enough. There are scientists who believe that we must have, right
now, new cell lines. And there are solid arguments that they make.
But the policy is a moral policy and the question is whether within
the moral principles and guidelines for that policy we can use the
available embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federal funding
and use them and use all of these other new possibilities to find
a way to do this research, as Dr. Gearhart, I know wants, without
ever having to go through the embryos again. Was that clear, Ms.
M. Fox: It’s clear.
Coordinator: Dr. Kass, at this time we show no
L. Kass: All right, let’s give the reticent students a moment
or two. If anybody wants to ask a question, now is the time. If
not, let me thank you for your interest in the Council and its work.
Coordinator: Dr. Kass, Nicholas Wade of New York
Times has queued up.
N. Wade: I’m not usually this greedy about filling out question
time but since there was a pause, can I ask a third question? With
respect to your response about the bioethicists who are working
with the National Academy of Sciences and with previous presidential
bioethics committees, were you not implying, Dr. Kass, that they
had in a sense sold out to the scientists?
L. Kass: No, I don’t want to say that at all. These are serious
people who call the ethical questions as they see them. It has rather
to do with the composition of these bodies. And some of the panels
that were convened to discuss the ethics of embryo research at NIH
were in fact explicitly designed to exclude anybody who had any
grave doubts about doing embryo research at all. If you exclude
those people, a fair number of the problems and the ethical disagreements
N. Wade: Right.
L. Kass: I give you an anecdote. Prior to the panel meeting, the
workshop that the National Academy of Sciences convened last October
that was in the early stages of producing the report that they’ve
just issued, there was a dinner the night before I made my presentation.
And a Harvard Medical School scientist whom I did not know, whose
name I knew, sat at the table with me and he said to me, “I
know how to solve the problem of your Council.” I said, “Really?
I would like all suggestions.” He said, “Appoint some
bioethicists.” I said, “But we do have bioethicists.”
I listed the number of people who, in fact, write in bioethics.
By the way, there are people who are entirely on board with this
document who are in fact opposed to the President’s policy
on stem cell research. They would like to see something more liberal.
But they would even more prefer to see something that didn’t
require one side or the other to simply have to give way.
I pointed out to him that we have people who’ve been in bioethics
for 30 years and other people who, though they haven’t worked
on this area, are quick studies and wise souls, many of whom, by
the way, agree with him on this question [i.e., of embryonic stem
cell research]. He said, “Well, you don’t have the kind
of bioethicists we have at Harvard.” And it took me a half
an hour to point out to him that the problem wasn’t that we
were stubborn or that I was saddled with a bunch of superstitious
It took a long time to persuade him that there were real issues
here, that there was a real difference of opinion on the propriety
of creating human life solely to experiment on it. There are lots
of Americans, even those who want the benefits of stem cell research,
who have grave doubts about the morality—and if not about
the morality, then about the wisdom—of starting down this
road of instrumentalizing nascent human life, no matter how good
If you don’t see that that’s a moral problem, you could
have a Ph.D. in ethics, but you’re going to block out the
moral sensibilities of lots of people, nonreligious as well as religious.
So I want to praise the ethicists who’ve served on previous
bioethics councils. They’ve done their job. They’ve
done some good work, but they’ve been so constituted that
either the large questions were sort of punted or there was such
unanimity about the large questions that you didn’t even know
that were any large questions still hanging in the public at large.
One of the things I’m most proud of this Council for is that
we were, by design, created in some way to reflect the deeper divisions
that are in the American society, and without papering over those
differences, we have found ways to try to move the discussion forward
and to, in a way, legitimate those disagreements rather than make
them go away.
N. Wade: Okay, thank you.
Coordinator: Our next question comes from Claudia
Kalb of Newsweek. You may ask your question.
C. Kalb: Dr. Kass, hi.
L. Kass: Hi.
C. Kalb I had a question that sort of relates to the first proposal
in this report, which is the question of the embryos that are at
the IVF lab and being thrown away, which a lot of people point to
as an issue. Why is that a moral problem and how different are those
embryos from the first proposal here being the dead embryos?
L. Kass: Right. Look, this is of course a very difficult and complex
moral discussion. There are roughly 400,000, by recent survey, human
embryos stored in the freezers. Most of them are no longer wanted
for the reproductive purpose for which they were first created.
An argument is, if many of them are going to die anyhow, or be discarded,
why should not their demise be redeemed by making them useful for
the benefit of other people? That is, one has to say, a certain
powerful moral argument.
However, being doomed to die is not yet being dead. We do not ethically
allow the removal of kidneys and livers from people on death row
or from people who have three or four weeks left to live. We have
insisted morally that simply being in the fatal condition or terminally
ill does not yet put one beyond the boundary where ethical removal—with
consent—is somehow appropriate.
Drs. Landry and Zucker of Columbia University Medical Center, who
are the authors of that proposal, one of the reasons why they wanted
to restrict this to the embryos that were in fact already dead is
that they would in no way be hastening the death of embryos nor
would they somehow be involved in it. They would rather treat [only]
the embryonic equivalent of a cadaver.
There’s some scientific evidence that living and viable cells
can be extracted from embryos that have stopped to divide as a whole
and that this would seem to be morally absolutely uncontroversial;
whereas destroying an embryo that was not yet dead, simply because
someone no longer was interested in it, seems more like taking the
kidneys from someone on death row prior to the execution. Does that
C. Kalb: Yes, thanks.
Coordinator: Dr. Kass, we show no questions.
L. Kass: Well then, let me at this time thank all of you for your
interest in the work of the Council and in this report. I look forward
to seeing what, if anything, you will do with this.
Also, let me just say for those of you who would like to follow
up on this, we’ve had recent conversations with a distinguished
biologist, Dr. Markus Grompe, who is at the Oregon Health and Science
University, on some of these reprogramming and dedifferentiation
He has agreed to speak with people about the report. He has seen
it. He is one of the people who read this document in advance. We
did vet this document in advance in earlier draft with several scientists
and also with people at the NIH so that they knew what was coming
here as well. But thank you again, and I look forward to seeing
what you do with this. Good-bye.