Park, CA - The Geron Corporation found itself in a seemingly
unlikely position on Friday December 3rd: the site of
a protest by two anti-abortion groups. Geron's
Menlo Park headquarters may seem like a strange place
for pro-life groups to stage a protest. Menlo
Park, like most other Bay Area communities, is progressive
and politically moderate. About half of it's 32,000
residents are college graduates; about half work within
the technology industry. Geron Corporation, a
nine-year-old biotech firm, describes itself as "the
leading biotechnology company focused on human aging."
Geron Corporation, however, has found itself on
the ramparts of abortion-foes' latest battlefield: stem
cell research. The three-hour protest, which reportedly
kept some Geron employees from coming to work, may be
only an opening salvo.
The protest was peaceful. Media reports placed
the number of protesters between 20 and 45. They
waved signs bearing pictures of aborted fetuses and
sang hymns. At one point, protesters tried to
meet with Geron officials, but only got as far as a
security guard. But the small, quiet nature of
the protest shouldn't belie it's importance. Two
notable names in the pro-life movement led the protest:
Troy Newman, director of Operation Rescue West, and
Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense
Coalition. These two, along with Rev. Philip Benham,
Director of Operation Save America, Jeff White, a national
and regional Operation Rescue leader and a dozen others
are co-defendants in a federal justice department suit
filed under the Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances Act.
Their trial is scheduled to begin January 19 of
next year. Why have national figures in the abortion
debate targeted stem cell research, and Geron in particular?
At the heart of the matter is the same philosophical
question that is at the root of the abortion debate:
when does life begin?
Geron and the biotech industry in general gained the
attention of the anti-abortion movement last year when
University of Wisconsin researchers announced that they
had isolated human, embryonic stem cells. Stem
cells are undifferentiated fetal cells that develop
into anyone of the two hundred and ten different cell
types in the human body. Geron funded the University
of Wisconsin work. The company's researchers envision
the ability to grow new human tissue capable of repairing
heart muscle, bones, nerves, skin, eyes and perhaps
even brain tissue. The stem cells isolated at
the University of Wisconsin and in other Geron research
come from the tissue of aborted fetuses and embryos
-- fertilized human eggs. The frozen eggs are
discarded from fertility clinics after parents already
have children or decide they no longer want them.
of the pro-life movement, who believe that life begins
at conception, obviously oppose stem cell research.
For them, it is akin to experimenting on human
beings. Abortion foes would argue that the fetus
and even the frozen embryo have a soul. Mahoney,
Newman and their ilk label stem cell research using
frozen embryos as murder, just as they do abortion.
It is more than just a moral debate for the anti-abortion
activists. For them, it is nothing less than a
jihad. On the Operation Rescue West website, Newman
even compares himself and the others involved in the
federal lawsuit to Biblical saints. "I believe
in what I am doing. I believe God has called me
to this ministry of saving children from abortion, and
I know the other leaders feel the same way," he said.
Proponents of Geron's research counter that the
potential medical benefits make the research morally
acceptable. Many of them would also argue that
life begins much later than the embryonic or fetal stages
in human development.
year, when Geron announced the isolation of stem cells,
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Bioethics
at the University of Pennsylvania, relayed his thoughts
on the morality of the issue for MSNBC.com. "My
own view is that it would be wrong to make embryos just
for research. That would be creating potential
people just as guinea pigs or products," Caplan said.
"But if an embryo already exists, then it seems
to me morally acceptable to use it for research since
it will never become a human being. It will either
be destroyed or frozen unused. It is one thing
to create embryos for research but morally different
to use what was made for another reason but is now to
be destroyed. "If 'spare' embryos can be used,
then I think the moral needs of the sick and dying outweigh
the moral reservations felt about using this type of
embryo in research," he concluded. So it would
seem the battle lines have been drawn. Geron shows
no signs of slowing down in their promising research.
In less than a decade they have secured a number
of patents. This past spring, the company patented
a technology called "telomerase expression," which allows
cells to keep replicating. The company also owns
a process for harvesting and developing stem cells.
and its brethren in the biotech industry may face opposition
other than anti-abortion activists, however. Many
conservative federal legislators are leery of the moral
questions surrounding stem cell research. In 1995
Congress made it illegal for federal dollars to fund
stem cell research, leaving it to private companies,
like Geron, to fund research until early 1998 when the
Clinton administration reversed it's position on this
issue. The congress then got involved in
the fight, and the
NIH was forced again to reverse it's decision. There have even been attempts
in Congress in the last two years to legislate or even
criminalize somatic cell nuclear transfer, the process
that could lead to cloning, and may be necessary for
Geron to reach it's goals. In fact, earlier this
year, Geron bought Roslin Bio-Med, the Scottish company
formed by the scientists who cloned Dolly the sheep.
But Geron is not without its supporters, both
in and outside of the biotech industry. A number
of patient groups for diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's,
AIDS, cystic fibrosis, stroke and even cancer have given
Geron's research their support. The groups have
formed a coalition urging the government to reverse
its position on federal funding for stem cell research.
The moral debate over stem cell research may have only
just begun, but will likely continue on into the foreseeable
future. It may have been quiet, but this protest may
just have been ground zero.