Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Understanding The Stem Cell Debate

Image hosted by Photobucket.comIn an all-too rare demonstrate of strong, bipartisan support, members of both ruling Parties in the House of Representatives joined together to overwhelmingly pass a bill to expand federally funded stem cell research. The measure would allow scientists to use stem cells derived from embryos created for in vitro fertilization which otherwise would be destroyed as medical waste. While many applaud the move as step in the right direction, predictably religious conservative have waved the abortion flag once again.

Is this fair analogy? Are the religious conservatives right; is using embryonic stem cells in research akin to abortion? I don’t buy the analogy; after all we are not speaking of a human life here, we are speaking potential human life. Every sperm, and every egg is a potential human life. The non-partisan American Progress Action Fund published this explanation of stem cell vs. abortion yesterday in their daily newsletter:

UNDERSTANDING STEM CELLS: Don’t confuse stem cell research with the emotionally charged debate surrounding abortion; they are very, very different issues. An embryo is not a fetus; it's a cluster of about 150 cells, also known as a blastocyst, which forms a few days after the joining of a sperm and egg, and is no larger than the period at the end of this sentence. Within the center of this cluster are the stem cells, which are like biological blank slates. These cells have the potential to become any of the 200 kinds of cells that make up the human body. Many scientists believe stem cell research could one day be used to treat people living in pain with serious illnesses such as spinal injuries, Alzheimer's, strokes, brain injuries, Parkinson's, diabetes and heart defects.

I must admit that I have a personal stake in the outcome of this debate, I have Diabetes and someone very close to me has lived with MS for the past ten years, both ailments that further stem cell research could help cure. The conservative Republicans speak of a culture of life but conveniently forget the life that has already been born. Does human life cease to have value after a baby is born? Does a group of cells frozen in a Petri dish have (equal) more value than a living breathing, disease stricken human being? A blastocyst is not a human life (although Tom Delay would disagree); it is a grouping of cells that could become a human life if implanted into a viable womb. A sperm is not human life either, it is a group of cells then when joined with an egg could produce a human life. Should they be protected as well, since they have the potential of creating a human life? And if so, how, the sex police? Billions are wasted every time a man uses a condom, every time I man masturbates; should we make condom use and male masturbation illegal under the guise of protecting human life. How far do we as a society what to take this?

George W. Bush and other religious zealots point to adult stem cells as an alternative to those harvested from embryos. But it has been widely reported that adult stem cells are not as viable as those from an embryo. Again the non-partisan American Progress Action Fund published this explanation of adult stem cell vs. embryonic stem cells yesterday in their daily newsletter:

ADULT VS. EMBRYONIC: Bush advocated scientists using adult bone marrow and umbilical cord blood instead of embryonic stem cells. Umbilical and embryonic stem cells “are not in any way interchangeable,” said David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Regenerative Medicine and Technology. In a letter sent to President Bush, a group of 80 Nobel laureates agreed, saying “current evidence suggests that adult stem cells have markedly restricted differentiation potential.” The fact remains that stem cells derived from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood have less potential than those from embryos. Adult stem cell lines are difficult to work with and cannot develop – or “differentiate” – into all types of cells like embryonic stem cells can; for example, they are unable to produce insulin-producing cells to fight diabetes. Umbilical stem cells also are only able to develop into “the components of blood – red cells, white cells and platelets.”

Other countries are pulling ahead of the United States in this very critical area of study because we have let religious zealotry invade the body politic and in so doing insinuate itself into public policy. U.S. scientists are going overseas to do research on stem cells and South Korea just announced significant progress towards cloning embryonic stem cells. But this goes far beyond U.S. dominance of the bio-tech industry; it speaks to the very nature of our society and what for it will take in the future. The debate over stem cells is just one of many battles that pit logic, science and the public good, again religious ideology, and if it continues we all loose. Do we want a forward looking progressive society governed by logic and intelligent discourse, or do we want a society governed by religious ideological passion that will in time end our dominance of science and technology?