Jonathan Turley is a lawyer and a Professor of Constitutional Law at George Washington University. He is frequently a guest on television news talk shows and contributes to analyses and discussions about legal isssues. But, he has written an opinion essay on stem cell research, where he is clearly out of his element, in USA Today on July 18th, 2006, "The case for macroscopic humans". Turley writes as some sort of aficianado of stem cell research. However, his mistakes reveal a shallow understanding of the basic Human Embryology, which is not altogether uncommon when a politico like Turley, who is long on reputation, but short on knowledge, attempts to beguile a general readership. I use the word "beguile" advisedly because Turley uses it in his first paragraph when describing the "embryonic stem cell" as beguiling. The truth is the deceit is that of Turley's, not from any cell. Such Shakespearean prose does not win the case for Turley when he should have been fortifying his essay with scientific facts.
His biggest failure is seen in his first sentence when he uses the phrase "embryonic stem cell". Of course he is referring to the human "embryonic stem cell". There is no such cell! [Please see my essay: "Update on Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research", this website] Unfortunately, this phrase has been used so often and so extensively that it has taken on real life credibility. It has been used to identify the cells, called blastomeres, of the early human embryo. But, this is wrong. What is desired is to culture these blastomeres to the point where they are only partially differentiated to true stem cells.
In describing the source for these cells, Turley describes the early human embryo in outright arrogant terms: "barely perceptible", "the dot over the "i" in embryonic", "imperceptibly small", and, bringing in the religious aspect, "a type of "holy dot". He has a prejudice with size. Does Turley mean that small people are less significant, or less human, than big people? He has little imagination, much less appreciation, for the intricate, unseen processes of life.
He writes that the "spare" embryos from in vitro fertilization laboratories [although he wrongfully states they are "thousands of stem cells"] "are routinely discarded". The truth is that they are NOT routinely discarded as evidenced by the several hundreds of thousands still preserved in liquid nitrogen. Some are discarded it is true. But, there have been "adoptions" of these early human embryos, and some successes of implantations being brought to term are documented by such organizations as The Snowflake Foundation. Other spares are given burials by the donors who have retained legal rights to their excess embryos. There is something else that Turley should have thought about: there is always an attrition rate to the freezing and thawing of those spares. The IVF procedure is at best only about 20% successful. The use of thawed excess for second or third trys at implantation have even a lesser success rate. On the whole they are probably not a good source for experimental cultures.
Had President Bush not vetoed the funding for stem cell research, the likelihood of "fetal farming" would have become a reality. Oocytes fertilized by sperm in a petri dish are always collected in excess. If the first attempt at implantation fails, a second or third attempt is made. The excess embryos are designated as "spares". Thus, even though remuneration may be prohibited, the "farming" of those embryos through their release for research purposes will have been a reality.
Turley cites the fact that Senator Orrin Hatch has "opposed Bush's ban". What he did not reveal is that Senator Hatch has publicly declared that human life does not begin until implantation in the uterus. Of course this is contrary to Human Embryology, which clearly states that life, and pregnancy, begins at fertilization. Thus, the "spare" embryos are human lives, and if scientific facts matter, this truth is the source of President Bush's decision not to destroy a life for the prospect of saving another.
Turley invokes his father's illness as a prod to promote "embryonic stem cell" research. So far, the prospect of a therapeutic use of stem cells for such diseases as Parkinson's, Diabetes or Alzheimer's is simply soundbyte hype. One important evidence of this may be had by considering the fact that privately funded stem cell research using early human embryos [it is not prohibited legally] has been going on for the past 20 years or more by more than one high-tech company. These companies have either bought "spare" human embryos from IVF laboratories or have had them donated to their research. To date, there have been no reports of credible advances of viable or useable stem cell lines towards therapeutic potentials.
That is not to say that there will never be such advances made; but, before committing millions of tax dollars to highly questionable human research, the first priority should be research in appropriate animal models.
I have often wondered why more human embryologists do not participate in the public polemic and speak out against the kind of twaddle Turley promotes. One reason is that the major media outlets do not solicit their counsel. Further, there has never been a human embryologist appointed to any Presidential Commission, nor has any been invited as a witness to any life issue under consideration. I believe one of the major reasons for the reluctance of human embryologists to engage in the life issues is that they would find the science arguing against intractable emotion, arbitrary statements and outright blather. In other words, it isn't worth it. Another reason might be that most of the major human embryologists are authors. They do not wish to do or say anything which might hurt the sale of their textbooks. We don't teach our medical students the kind of pap that Turley, and others like him, endorse. We can only hope for the day that eventually the truth will be heard.
C. Ward Kischer, Ph.D. is an emeritus professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology, specialty in Human Embryology, University of Arizona College of Medicine, and an adult stem cell researcher. He may be contacted at email@example.com.