Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Stem Cell Debate

The science behind stem cell research is very confusing. It is a subject I have struggled with for some time, and one I have followed since President Bush authorized some federal funding of Embryonic Stem cell research in 2001. Monday's decision by President Obama was a terrible decision, but you may not realize just how terrible. To help illustrate the point, here is my quick primer on Stem Cell research and my own thoughts on the debate.

The Stem Cell Debate 101

The first fact you should know is that there are currently no treatments and no cures that were created from Embryonic Stem Cells. None. Secondly, there are many, many treatments available from adult stem cells. These include treatments for cirrhosis, Crohn's disease, lupus, sickle-cell anemia, urinary incontinence and many other benefits including for cancer patients, the blind, and restoring bone marrow. There have been zero treatments created from Embryonic Stem Cells. Zero.

Embryonic stem cells are no longer necessary for scientific research. In November of 2007 a team was able to produce the equivalent of embryonic cells without creating or destroying an embryo. This method has continued to improve. When this breakthrough was announced, many cited it as proof that President Bush was correct in instituting restrictions in 2001. Some even suggested this would put an end to embryonic stem cell research. Why destroy an embryo if you don't need too?

President Bush did not ban embryonic stem cell research. He limited federal funding to research involving any line that was in existence prior to August of 2001. In so doing, he became the first President to actually authorize tax payer funding for embryonic stem cell research. Look here for a more detailed history of what previous Presidents have and haven't done. The public is very divided on this issue. President Bush felt it was therefore inappropriate for the federal government to force taxpayers to subsidize what many believe is the destruction of human life.

The Debate

President Obama stated that this (and future executive orders) is about, "…letting scientists…do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient…" That is the wrong approach to take on this or any scientific subject that involves testing on humans. You may not believe life starts in the womb. However, everyone reading this was once an embryo. We are talking about destroying a "pre-birth" human in the name of medicine or science. This isn't a scientific decision, it is a moral decision. If scientists want to experiment on any creature, whether it is an embryo, an inmate, a senior citizen, a monkey, or a dog, politicians need to weigh very carefully the benefit and the morality of such behavior. The scientist says, " I want to run this test on people in jail, or medical patients in a hospital because I think I might one day cure blindness." Policy makers must decide if we are willing to sacrifice those people for such experiments. This decision is not based purely on science, but on what we will accept, morally, as a society. Is it acceptable to destroy life to try and make future generations healthier? As Ryan Anderson wrote this week for The Weekly Standard, "Listening to scientists who tell us what they want to do doesn't mean we should give them a blank check; we need to determine if what they're proposing …is what they should be doing." From the movie Jurassic Park, "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

As with other scientific issues, there are scientists on both sides of this argument. Some believe we should take whatever chances we can in the hopes of saving lives down the road. Others argue that there is very little difference in an embryo and a newborn baby. We can't destroy life simply to perform science.

A Slippery Slope

One of the problems with this research is, "Where do you draw the line?" If we start with embryos that "were going to be destroyed anyway" is it that big of a step to start cloning a few in the hopes of saving millions? Any treatment that results from embryonic stem cells will require cloning to be effective, so why not start now? If you are ok with destroying clones and embryos, what about the elderly? What about the disabled who might have a reduced quality of life? Surely the sacrifice of an 84 year old vegetative person is acceptable if it will save lives down the road…

This is a very tough topic. Smart and well meaning people can arrive at different conclusions. However, we need to remember we are destroying unborn humans in this research. Also, this is not a scientific decision. Science tells you there is a potential for a beneficial outcome from these experiments. It does not guarantee any result, and it does not rule on what is right and what is wrong.


saint said...

I was disappointed to see the ban on federal funding post 2001 lifted, but unfortunately, not surprised.

pack04 said...

a few examples of "letting scientists…do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion"

quick Google search on Nazi science experiments
nuclear weapons
fossil fuel extraction and use

Of course there are plenty of good that scientist have done:
understanding microbiology
increased food production

However there is a fine line and the scientist do need regulation for somethings, on a case by case basis.

pack04 said...

Also from your post it sounds like people don't completely understand everything that is going on, even the President and myself.

Did somebody put this in front of him and it said "stem cell research could cure something and President Bush said no." So he said "okay." Governing with information coming to you like a newspaper headline does not sound like a good idea.

Andy D said...

I have been surprised that no one has stepped up to defend the President's decision. Perhaps there is hope after all...

As far as the whole letting science make moral decisions, I would think Obama would remember the Tuskegee experiment. We have talked about it on this site before, and I believe Rev. Wright may have mentioned it in one of his sermons that got played on the news last week.

A number of the commentators on President Obama's speech point out that the contradicted himself in the span of 3 minutes. For example, Charles Krauthammer writes:

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values." Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Is he so obtuse not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike President Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.