Friday, June 10, 2005

Stem cells:

The future of medicine or Frankenscience?

This will be one of the most emotionally fraught battles of George Bush's presidency, said Ron Hutcheson in The Philadelphia Inquire. The House of Representatives this week passed a bipartisan bill that would vastly expand federally funded research on embryonic stem cells. Extracted from newly fertilized human eggs, these undifferentiated cells can be coaxed to grow into almost any kind of tissue. Scientists hope to turn stem cells into healthy brain, nerve, pancreas, and other kinds of cells, providing treatments or even cures for such afflictions as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, diabetes, and spinal cord injuries.

Almost four years ago, President Bush restricted government-supported research on stem-cell lines to the 20 that already existed. The House bill would allow money for research on new lines, harvested from the 400,000 embryos left over from artificial-fertilization procedures. But the president has vowed to veto the new bill, arguing that any relaxation of his stem-cell rules would "promote science which destroys life in order to save life."

Bush is making a tragic mistake, said The New York Times in an editorial. British and Asian scientists have embraced stem-cell research, and are leaving the U.S. "pathetically behind the times." Last week, scientists in South Korea announced that they had extracted stem cells from human embryos they had successfully cloned, using skin cells from test subjects. The stem cells that were created are exact genetic matches to the subjects--a breakthrough that could lead to the growing of fresh, healthy tissues or organs that the body will not reject. How can Bush turn his back on such promising science, based solely on his personal religious views?

It's called conscience, said Eric Cohen in The Weekly Standard. You don't have to be a pro-lifer to be worried about the path this Frankenstein research is taking. "Everyone wants to cure diseases," but there's something deeply disturbing about fertilizing eggs and creating human embryos, so they can be killed, ripped apart, and used "as tools to help others." With "no real ethical limits" on this research, we're headed to a chilling "brave new world." It's not as if there aren't alternatives, said Cardinal William Keeler in USA Today. One is for researchers to use stem cells taken from umbilical-cord blood. These cells offer promising benefits without the "moral problems" associated with those taken from embryos.

That's a very cynical argument, said Harvard University endocrinologist David Shaywitz in The Wall Street Journal. All the evidence indicates that umbilical-cord blood cells are nowhere near as promising; they show no signs of being able to "turn into other types of cells, such as pancreas and brain." Right-to-lifers don't really care, though; their objection to stem-cell research is based on the religious belief that "the human embryo should be held as sacrosanct," even when it consists of a primitive clump of four to eight cells. Since most Americans don't share that belief, religious conservatives are using "junk science" as a smoke screen.

As someone whose health is declining rapidly because of Parkinson's disease, said Michael Kinsley in the Los Angeles Times, I find this debate deeply "disheartening." President Bush's bioethical advisor, Leon Kass, now is calling for a "moratorium" on stem-cell research until the ethical issues are resolved. Please. Eggheads like him will noodle their way "through arcane ethical mazes" for years or decades, while life-saving research is stalled. But science cannot be stopped; stem cells eventually will be developed into treatments or cures. The only question is whether I and a few million other people will still be alive to benefit from them.
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