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Stem cells proffer ‘greatest good for greatest number’

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WASHINGTON — In the unfamiliar company of bioethicists, George W. Bush is wrestling with a decision about stem-cell research that could define his presidency.

The most exciting scientific news in recent years is that the human body may have the capacity to regenerate itself. Biologists were stunned: Degeneration is not inexorable. The earliest building blocks of the body — cells not yet destined to become a nerve, muscle or any of over 200 varieties of cell — may soon be directed to repair organs that are diseased and to rejuvenate those that are wearing out.

This would mean longer lives with much less suffering. Then why doesn't the government plunge ahead? Delay means debilitation and death to millions of victims of Parkinson's, juvenile diabetes and scores of other diseases and untellable hardship to their families.

There's this hitch: The most flexible and versatile stem cells appear to be those taken from excess blastocysts (groupings of under 30 cells just becoming embryos) created in the laboratory for infertile couples, frozen and scheduled to be discarded.

What's wrong with that? Only this: The doomed blastocysts, which have never been inside a person, are potential people, however remote that potential. Many whose consciences forbid abortion believe that government should give no moral or financial backing to anything that impedes the development of new life — no matter that its purpose is the saving of other human life.

That minority's views — consistent with its belief that life begins at conception — cannot be airily dismissed. It argues that scientists may find, in time, that stem cells can be developed from adult cells rather than blastocysts. With populist resistance growing to genetic manipulation, opponents of embryonic stem-cell research are not alone in being troubled by the related chimeras of cloning.

However, that bloc is split. Some of the most ardent opponents of abortion see life-saving stem-cell research as eminently "pro-life."

The great majority of scientists are less conflicted. They reject a compromise proposal that would give a single private company, which has patents on a few stem-cell lines, a kind of monopoly. Scientists like Irving Weissman of Stanford were outspoken at a recent meeting at the National Academy of Science in describing the adult-cell alternative as a delaying tactic when the need is urgent.

(Disclosure: When not vituperating for a living, I head a foundation that supports research in brain science, neuro-immunology and immuno-imaging. We're exploring studies in neuro-ethics, surely a growing field.)

The decision facing Bush is ethical, political and practical. If ethical philosophy predominates, "the greatest good for the greatest number" would push him in the direction of encouraging stem-cell research. Politically, public support for it will grow as advocates for the most directly affected diseases press up from the grass roots.

The practical argument has the immediate puissance. This research will go forward with or without Washington's blessing. If we lag, Britain, France, Sweden and Canada will take the lead. Private resources will flow to potential profit centers without public participation in ethical decisions.

In a prime-time speech, Bush should announce his support of embryonic stem-cell research and the careful oversight called for by scientists and doctors who are disinclined to play God. At the same time, he should convene a White House conference on bioethics; that would focus world attention on both the opportunities in genetic exploration and America's awareness of the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.

Think anew and act anew. This is a big one.

New York Times News Service