What You Should Think About Stem Cell Research

“The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.”

–H. L. Mencken

The new morning greets us with news that a Nobel Prize has been awarded to three men involved with breakthroughs in the field of stem cell research. Of course, their work is not truly controversial. The “mice have souls too” lobby has yet to make a big splash in our nation’s capital. Though this work did involve embryonic stem cells, it did not involve human cells at all. So, other than putting “stem cells” on people’s minds around the water cooler, the cultural ripples from this should be minor.

Yet stem cell talk is not at all pointless in a nation that seems to remain divided by the issue. Reaching for the wisdom of King Solomon, our President instead demonstrated the wisdom of Solomon Grundy. His approach to an issue straddling science and theology was, in the end, purely political. Just before a terrorist conspiracy would give George W. Bush years to show the world the extent of his spectacularly poor judgment, he issued an executive order to this effect — the kind of medical waste some people believe to be sacred must remain medical waste and at no time should be used to save terminally ill human beings.

Of course that is not the language Karl Rove would craft to explain this bizarre “worst of both worlds” compromise. Yet that does sum up the order. One might regard my characterization as unfair based on the fact that lifesaving stem cell therapies were largely experimental in 2001. So I suppose I should append “even indirectly” to hit the nail on the head. However passionate your feelings about human blastocysts and spirituality might be, the White House action only insures that the fate of these common byproducts of in vitro fertility (IVF) treatments remains disposal as waste.

Whether or not these microscopic Petri dish inhabitants, with their theoretical potential to grow into human babies, deserve to be treated as waste was never the issue. There is little political upside to crushing thousands of affluent (the process is never cheap) couples’ hopes of parenting their own biological children. IVF can be unreliable. Thus producing surplus embryos reduces not only the cost, but also the health risks of repetitive surgery. To put it crudely, when nature and less invasive methods do not lead to pregnancy, you’ve got to break a few eggs to make a baby.

Yet these broken eggs are not always unfertilized. Sometimes the earliest cell divisions reveal signs indicating a full term pregnancy is unlikely. Sometimes the first implantation effort succeeds, leaving high grade reserve embryos no longer wanted by the relevant sperm and egg donors. There have been symbolic efforts at finding upstanding evangelical Christian women willing to carry other people’s embryos to term in order to avert disposal, but that is hardly a comprehensive (or sensible) response to the realities of IVF.

While the fate of unwanted embryos remains grim, so too does the fate of many Americans with an assortment of degenerative, often terminal, conditions. The nation may be divided on how much God is offended by the handling of artificially cultured human embryos, but I would like to think we are united in wishing there was some hope for people with Parkinson’s Disease or ALS. Then there are people suffering from brain or spinal injuries that leave them severely disabled with little prospect of recovery other than a breakthrough in regenerative medicine. Heck, I even think some consideration should be given to the people who might simply like a new head of hair or replacement teeth.

There may be workarounds to bypass the theocratic roadblock. In some contexts, using even more complex procedures, scientists have been able to cause cells harvested from adults to exhibit some of the crucially useful behaviors of embryonic stem cells. For the hair and teeth crowd, I suppose delays related to popular spiritual beliefs may be reasonable. Is it also be reasonable to wait on opportunities to liberate people from crippling injuries? Should people dying a slow death from terminal conditions go unhealed to respect religious demands regarding the treatment of unwanted IVF embryos?

Fortunately this debate does not require answers to those questions. Because existing federal policy does not actually accomplish a single thing in the field of preserving, never mind gestating, surplus embryos; the President’s policy is much worse than it seems at first glance. It delays or denies possible cures for no higher purpose than to save the man’s own public face. In an impressive display of political scumbaggery, the debate was complicated by nuances like “it’s not really a ban, it’s just a way to insure taxpayer money does not fund this stuff,” and “well, they can still work with a small number of existing lines. That’s still research, right?”

There would be no more American wars if our Presidents respected comparatively sensible pacifists as much as they respect zealots dedicated to injecting hardline religious dogma into public policy discussions. All taxpayers have made a huge contribution to finance an effort that somehow made Iraq a much more deadly and hateful place than it was under the thumb of a tyrant. Why some citizens felt it was much more unbearable to fund research into a possible fix for Michael J. Fox’s tremors is beyond me.

Precisely which therapies will become practical when is still largely speculative. Yet there can be no doubt that this field features a rush of spectacular breakthroughs just waiting to be puzzled out by great thinkers. In most parts of the world this research is allowed to continue. Yet here in the United States (sans California,) this critical realm of biotechnology is practically forbidden territory. Even the most heartless cutthroat capitalist cannot be happy about surrendering a competitive advantage in a growing niche . . . all in the name of making George W. Bush appear smart.

It doesn’t take much thinking about his 2001 stem cell decision to realize it makes the sitting President look like a lot of things . . . and “smart” is not among them. Whatever you think about the potential of adult stem cell research, there is no justification for perpetuating a “trash only” policy in the handling of surplus IVF embryos. Any delay in advancing this frontier can be measured in untold human suffering and large numbers of human deaths. If anything, continuity with this policy only demonstrates to the world just how far one particular politician will go to avoid uttering a significant mea culpa.


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