Morgan in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Research Is a Good Life for Dead Embryo"

Tuesday, December 3, 2002 - 12:00pm

This opinion piece ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Friday, November 29, 2002.

In its relentless determination to undermine legal abortion, the Bush administration is again on the offensive against medical research. Three times in the past three months, the administration has moved to extend federal protections to embryos and fetuses.

The latest announcement came Oct. 30, when the National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee was directed to  consider even the earliest embryos as human subjects worthy of protection from the risks of medical research. These assaults against scientific research are misguided, because in the hands of competent scientists even a dead embryo can have a long and productive life.

Indeed, readers might be surprised to learn that some of the most cutting-edge, high-tech digital images of embryos are actually portraits of an embryo known as Carnegie No. 836, now 88 years old and going strong.

Found in Mrs. R's uterus after a hysterectomy in 1914, No. 836 quickly became a minor celebrity. Just 28 days old, a quarter-inch long and in perfect condition, 836 was one of the youngest specimens then to enter the collection at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Embryology.

Known as a stage 13 specimen, 836 was placed into a microtome and sliced into 247 flawless sections. By the '40s, the Carnegie collection numbered more than 9,000 sectioned human embryos that were used to study the development of organ systems. As the results of this research were disseminated, the rest of us came to learn about what anatomist George Washington Corner called "ourselves unborn." From these dead embryos emerged an unprecedented, biologically based view of the beginnings of life.

Meanwhile, 836 became the Kate Moss of embryology: young, pretty, discovered serendipitously by someone who happened to be in the right place at the right time. No. 836 was subsequently photographed, drawn and modeled repeatedly by artists who could show off its best features. In the '70 and '80s, the aging star went into semi-retirement, languishing in a warehouse in northern California, its future in jeopardy. But now that public attention has turned to embryos, should we be surprised that 836 has staged a comeback?

Computer-imaging technologies have given 836 a new lease on life. Residing now at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, each section of 836 has been digitized, scanned into a computer for online 3-D reconstruction and information sharing. The specimen is now available in CD ROM and DVD formats that allow viewers to fly though the embryo from top to bottom. New software is being developed that will incorporate 836 into a quick-time movie, making a succession of dead embryos appear to grow before our eyes. Today's audiences obviously prefer their embryos animated.

Many scientists hope that enhanced embryo imagery will make the public appreciate the need for embryological research. Paradoxically, the latest pictures could have the opposite effect. In a political climate that filters everything about embryos through the lens of abortion, the very same image can be interpreted either to promote respect for the mysteries of life that unfold through scientific research or to cast every embryo as a sacred symbol of life off limits to researchers. Of course science does need to be regulated, but by personifying the embryo the administration has chosen the wrong course.

It's ironic that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson's images and understandings of embryos come from precisely the kind of research he now seeks to restrict. In August the administration announced its intention to support what it calls embryo adoption, the donation of surplus frozen embryos from one infertile couple to another. A supporter said on television that adoption provides "the best possible life, the best possible future" for a frozen embryo, by which she meant that implantation into a woman's womb was better than being destroyed for research.

Never mind that millions of sick Americans will not benefit if stem-cell research is halted. Never mind the fact that most implanted embryos die. The administration seems determined to insist that embryos will represent life, even if they die in the process. This is akin to conservatives' abhorrence of abortion and concern for the fetus that seems to vanish once those fetuses comes of age as newborns and children.

The ultimate goal of the administration's strategy is to give embryos a new legal status as people. That is why the administration enacted a regulation in September that allows states to provide health insurance coverage to embryos and fetuses "from the moment of conception" under the Child Health Insurance Program.

No matter that 41 million Americans -- call them aging embryos -- live without health insurance. No matter that pregnant women will themselves not be covered. Thompson withdrew his support for proposed legislation that would cover pregnant women because, he said, such coverage would be redundant now that embryos qualify for federal benefits.

Now 88 years old, 836 has undergone a stunning transformation. Like many an aging beauty, it benefits from (digital) cosmetic surgery to touch up its blemishes. Fashionable designers drape it in graceful folds and vibrant hues. No. 836 used to be a research subject, but now it is a member of the research team, using its celebrity status to raise funds for scientists, museums and corporations.

No. 836 is more active than ever, rotating and tumbling in front of the cameras, rehearsing for its cinema debut, performing for all the world like the spirited toddler the administration would have us envision. But in the end 836 is still a dead embryo, posing as an icon of life.

Lynn M. Morgan is an anthropology professor at Mount Holyoke College and co-editor of "Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions" (1999).