Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Democrat candidate Sen. John F. Kerry charges that President George Bush has "turned his back on science" in limiting embryonic stem cell research financed by the federal government. The Kerry campaign rolled out a television ad on the subject, saying that "millions of lives" are at stake. "It's time to lift the political barriers blocking the stem cell research that could treat or cure diseases like Parkinson's," the ad says. "I believe that science can bring hope to our families."

Like so many other issues in this campaign, John Kerry has politicized this one. Through distortion and glossing over of important details, Mr. Kerry demonizes George Bush as some sort of blackheart who ignores a simple solution that will alleviate suffering.

Without a proper perspective, one can be taken in by Mr. Kerry’s argument. Here is a little background on stem cells:

Stem cells are cells that have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body. Serving as a sort of repair system for the body, they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells for as long as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each "daughter" cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell.

Stem cell lines grown in the lab provide scientists with the opportunity to "engineer" them for use in transplantation or treatment of diseases. For example, before scientists can use any type of tissue, organ, or cell for transplantation, they must overcome attempts by a patient's immune system to reject the transplant. In the future, scientists may be able to modify human stem cell lines in the laboratory by using gene therapy or other techniques to overcome this immune rejection. Scientists might also be able to replace damaged genes or add new genes to stem cells in order to give them characteristics that can ultimately treat diseases.

Human embryonic stem cells are thought to have much greater developmental potential than adult stem cells.

Please note that last paragraph: “Human embryonic stem cells are THOUGHT to have much greater developmental potential than adult stem cells.” Also note well the qualifiers, such as “might” and “may” that are used in this description. The actual value of embryonic stem cells is still unknown.

So much of this argument is emotional. We are presented with images of people suffering from injuries and disease, like Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox, and we are told that if George Bush would just quit being a SOB, these people and many others can be cured and restored to health. That just isn’t so. While we sympathize with the plight of Mr. Fox, and mourn the loss of Mr. Reeve, the promise that many believe stem cell research will deliver is a far cry from actually being able to help those suffering from these diseases and injuries. At this point it is only a distant possibility, and far from a certainty.

Even so, the charges that Mr. Bush has "turned his back on science" are simply false. Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist offered this statement:

These are the facts. President George W. Bush is the first President to fund embryonic stem cell research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will spend a record $200 million this year to aggressively pursue promising research involving both adult and embryonic stem cells, and NIH funding has doubled to nearly $30 billion a year on this President’s watch. There is no limit on the amount of federal funds available for stem cell research. There is absolutely no restriction on stem cell research taking place at American universities, hospitals, and private laboratories.

And yet, John Kerry continues to mislead the American people. In his brief remarks today, the Democratic Presidential candidate used the word ‘ban’ four times to describe the President’s stem cell policies. Even worse, he and his running mate continue to play on the hopes of patients by promising that the paralyzed will walk when they are in office. That may be standard practice for trial lawyers. But it is unbecoming of candidates for the nation’s highest office.

If you listen to John Kerry and his running mate Sen. John Edwards, you might think that funding embryonic stem cell research has no down side. But the potential of stem cell research is only half of the issue. The rest of the story involves serious ethical questions that the Democrat candidates are all too willing to ignore in the pursuit of votes. The following remarks by President Bush outline his thinking, and the ethical dilemma of this issue:

As I thought through this issue, I kept returning to two fundamental questions: First, are these frozen embryos human life, and therefore, something precious to be protected? And second, if they're going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn't they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?

I've asked those questions and others of scientists, scholars, bioethicists, religious leaders, doctors, researchers, members of Congress, my Cabinet, and my friends. I have read heartfelt letters from many Americans. I have given this issue a great deal of thought, prayer and considerable reflection. And I have found widespread disagreement.

On the first issue, are these embryos human life -- well, one researcher told me he believes this five-day-old cluster of cells is not an embryo, not yet an individual, but a pre-embryo. He argued that it has the potential for life, but it is not a life because it cannot develop on its own.

An ethicist dismissed that as a callous attempt at rationalization. Make no mistake, he told me, that cluster of cells is the same way you and I, and all the rest of us, started our lives. One goes with a heavy heart if we use these, he said, because we are dealing with the seeds of the next generation.

And to the other crucial question, if these are going to be destroyed anyway, why not use them for good purpose -- I also found different answers. Many argue these embryos are byproducts of a process that helps create life, and we should allow couples to donate them to science so they can be used for good purpose instead of wasting their potential. Others will argue there's no such thing as excess life, and the fact that a living being is going to die does not justify experimenting on it or exploiting it as a natural resource.

At its core, this issue forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science. It lies at a difficult moral intersection, juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages.

I strongly oppose human cloning, as do most Americans. We recoil at the idea of growing human beings for spare body parts, or creating life for our convenience. And while we must devote enormous energy to conquering disease, it is equally important that we pay attention to the moral concerns raised by the new frontier of human embryo stem cell research. Even the most noble ends do not justify any means.

President Bush correctly identifies the moral delimma: If the use of embryonic stem cells for research means creating life, then destroying it, how can human beings ethically support it? For a clear description of the conception and early development of the human fetus, go to the Web log of Rebecca Harris at:

The issue of embryonic stem cell research is inextricably linked to ethical questions; it’s not so simple as the Democrat candidates would have us believe. Shortcutting the moral arguments for the purpose of garnering votes reflects a callous disregard for the sanctity of life. Before November 2, each of us must ask ourselves whether Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards are the sorts of people we want to lead us for the next four or eight years.

1 comment:

Rebecca DeVendra said...

I was listening to my dad read an article aloud to me a few weeks ago about Stem Cell research. It said that adult stem cells are better that embryotic and work better. They tested it on a guy with Parkinson’s disease. They took some of his stem cells, injected it into his brain, and his shaking stopped. He's been fine for five years. I think I will make a post on it some research and try to find that article again.

Excellent post, by the way.