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Keep a tight rein on stem cell research

Is it only a week since I sat back in my easy chair and watched the civil war erupt between the old pro-life allies?

The fissure was over embryonic stem cell research. At issue was _ and still is _ whether the government should fund the use of leftover frozen embryos for promising research to cure some very lethal diseases.

Suddenly folks like Orrin Hatch were asking themselves: How can it be right to discard these embryos or leave them in a freezer rather than to use them to save lives?

This question led many from the fringe into what pollsters always call the muddled middle when they talk about the abortion debate. I welcomed them into the vast group of Americans who believe an embryo is more than mere tissue but less than a full human being.

Well, be careful what you feel smug about.

Then we heard that a private fertility clinic in Virginia, the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine, had mixed up a batch of embryos for the sole and exclusive purpose of extracting stem cells. This produced a different reaction in my own muddled middle: How can it be right to create embryos just to do research with them?

And once again the emphasis shifted among those who think the embryo is less than a full human being but more than tissue.

For once, I even agree with President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer: "The president views this as a reminder that this is not a simple matter."

It's fitting, I suppose, that the made-to-order embryos came from this private fertility clinic. The first American "test-tube" baby was conceived at Jones some 20 years ago. The ethical problems that we are now wrestling with in stem cell research actually began with in vitro fertilization.

We've been following the bouncing ball of bioethics in reproduction for a generation now. When Louise Brown, the original test-tube Brit, was sprung on an astonished public, nobody even thought about the embryos left in the petri dish.

Over the years, we've heard all sorts of arguments about them. Couples have gone to court wrangling for custody of their microscopic creations. Countries have debated their fate.

Most people have come to regard IVF as a blessing to infertile couples. But the ball keeps bouncing. In more recent years couples and scientists have created embryos both for their potential life and as "medicine" for others.

The most dramatic example is Adam Nash, whose embryo was selected from 14 others so he could become a healthy bone marrow donor for his terminally ill sister. This prospect of making one child for another made many uneasy, but it resulted in two healthy lives. You could, especially if you are Adam and sister Molly's parents, call it a double blessing.

But now what happens when researchers deliberately seek out donors and create embryos from their sperm and eggs for the sole purpose of removing the stem cells for research? What happens when the stem cell is not a byproduct but a product?

The folks at the Jones Institute argue "the creation of embryos for research purposes" was not only "justifiable" but our "duty" to human kind. But the doctors have offered no serious proof that these new embryos are any better for research than the thousands that are already available and going to waste.

This is where the ball stops bouncing: The technology that makes many queasy isn't even necessary. This is where it hits the wall.

The Jones Institute research report couldn't have come at a more politically loaded moment. Opponents of funding stem cell research point to it as proof of a dangerously slippery slope.

But if I may change metaphors, it seems to me that government involvement would put a foothold on that slope.

What we have now is a unregulated fertility industry. A Wild West of reproduction. All out of the public eye.

The Jones Institute folks paid egg and sperm donors, and made embryos. Ironically, if we ever approve this research, no federally funded scientist could touch their stem cells.

I don't agree with opponents of embryonic stem cell research who will come before Congress to describe IVF clinics as "frozen orphanages." The extraordinary promise of stem cell research validates the use of these, leftover, embryos.

The best way, it seems this observer, who is now up from the easy chair, is to approve and control the research with public funds attached to tight ethical strings.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

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