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Twisting fate with ‘medicine’

Charles Rice | Wednesday, September 8, 2004

At Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler’s suggestion, Dr. Karl Gebhardt, a Nazi physician at the SS hospital at Hohenlychen, specialized in heteroplastic transplantation experiments. If an SS soldier had lost an arm or a leg, a replacement limb would be amputated from a live prisoner at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. The prisoner would be killed in the process and his limb would be rushed to Dr. Gebhardt who would make the futile attempt to attach it to the SS amputee (Leo Alexander, M.D. New England J. Of Med., July 14, 1949). Dr. Gebhardt was convicted at Nuremberg and hanged in 1948.

Dr. Gebhardt’s problem is that he was born before his time. The theory of his experiments, the killing of human beings to use their parts for the benefit of others, is precisely the principle that underlies embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Gebhardt would have been mystified by the technology but otherwise he would have felt at home in listening to Ron Reagan, son of the late President, at the Democratic National Convention.

First, the background: Your life began at fertilization when your father’s sperm joined your mother’s ovum. At the one-cell stage you were a zygote. After that you were an embryo until about seven weeks when you were called a fetus. To obtain embryonic stem cells, a woman’s ovum is cloned or fertilized in vitro to create a human embryo. Five-to-seven days after fertilization, stem cells are present. They are removed, which kills the embryo. The stem cells are then grown and manipulated to create specific types of human tissue. The hope is that such cells can be used to repair or replace damaged cells.

Ron Reagan urged the procurement of stem cells by cloning: “[A] doctor … takes … skin cells from your arm. The nucleus of one of your cells is placed into a donor egg whose own nucleus has been removed … [S]timulation will encourage your cell’s nucleus to begin dividing, [generating] embryonic stem cells containing only your DNA, thereby eliminating … tissue rejection. These stem cells are then driven to become the … cells that are defective in Parkinson’s patients. And finally, those cells – with your DNA – are injected into your brain where they will replace the faulty cells whose failure … led to the Parkinson’s disease … [Y]ou’re cured. … [T]hese embryonic stem cells, … could … be induced to recreate virtually any tissue in your body. How’d you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital?”

Ron Reagan said that “no fetal tissue is involved … No fetuses are created, none destroyed.” The process, however, does kill a human being, an embryo who therefore never has the chance to become a fetus, an infant, a law student, etc. You create a DNA-copy of yourself by cloning and then kill that living human being at the embryonic stage so as to use his or her stem cells. You can imagine Gebhardt nodding in approval.

President Reagan’s other son, Michael Reagan, said his father “opposed the creation of human embryos for the sole purpose of using their stem cells as possible medical cures.” President Reagan’s close advisor, Judge William Clark, in a New York Times op-ed on the day after the Reagan funeral, quoted the late President’s condemnations of the intentional killing of unborn life even at the earliest stage.

Neither embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) nor human cloning is prohibited by federal law. Both can be legally done with private funding. President Bush, on Aug. 9, 2001, banned federal funding of ESCR except for research on cell lines that had been derived by that date. He sought to avoid “taxpayer funding that would … encourage further destruction of human embryos.” The federal budget in 2003 included $24.8 million for ESCR in accord with the Bush criteria.

ESCR has not been shown to benefit patients with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or any other disease. But adult stem cells, taken from bone marrow, the placenta and the umbilical cord, are successfully used to treat some cancers, leukemia, heart attack, stroke, Parkinson’s, sickle-cell anemia and other diseases. Research on adult stem cells presents no moral problem. It attracts private funding because of its success. Proponents of ESCR have to seek federal funding because their lack of success prevents them from attracting private funding.

Come to think of it, even Gebhardt might be uncomfortable with our 21st century technologists. He used inmates already slated to die, and he agreed with the theory of Nazi Dr. Julius Hallervorden who said, “If you are going to kill all these people, at least take the brains out so that the material could be utilized.” But even Gebhardt might have been taken aback at our scientists who create new human life solely to destroy it for the use of others. Both techniques are diabolic. But the Nazi doctors were comparative amateurs.

Professor Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at plawecki.1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.