The Spitfire's Grill
Regular Rants from a Pragmatic Liberal
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Topic of the Day: Stem Cells
Today's Topic of the Day was inspired by the US House's passage of the Stem Cell bill that will allow for increased federal funding of therapeutic stem cell research. The bill should pass the Senate, unless Frist has the control over his party to not bring it to a vote (I doubt he does, so it'll pass). Since this will most likely be Bush's first veto, its worth some discussion.


I honestly believe this is an issue that has yet to really be framed. Bush has tried to bring stem cell research into his "Culture of some people's Life" agenda. Kerry tried to push himself as the President of Science (which I think people took as "the President of Spending on Science").

The status quo is that federal funding will be provided to only the existing lines of stem cells. Now we found out last year those lines are tainted, this has further implications on the debate, as I'll discuss below. One thing that does seem interesting in all this is that the debate doesn't seem to be centering on where the line should be drawn but on whether the line should be pushed in one particular direction or not. One of my pet peeves is politicians' seeming lack of concern for where a line is drawn, just that its a move to the right or the left. This is why I included Cardinal Keeler's opinion below, because I do think we need to be very careful of where we draw the line.

The Bush position, I must say, doesn't seem to promote a "Culture of Life" whether you look at it from the Right or the Left. I have pondered why Bush doesn't just cut the research's funding or do like Gov Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has tried to do and simply ban the research altogether. I wasn't quite sure how to put it into writing, but luckily the adept Ed Kilgore manages to do it quite nicely:
But the worst of these absurdities is at the very center of his allegedly "principled" stand against federal funding of research on new embryonic stem cells obtained from embyros [sic] scheduled for destruction at IV fertility clinics.

He's not for banning federal funds for research on existing stem cells, mind you--even though the "moral complicity" arguments applies as much to old as new stem cell lines. He's not for banning research so long as it's funded by somebody other than Uncle Sam. And most importantly, he's not for banning the deliberate creation and destruction of embryos at fertility clinics, even though that is where all of the "destruction of human life" goes on.
Indeed, it seems like W figured he was about to get beat to a pulp on this issue, so he drew a line in the sand. He figures his protecting this line would pander to the Right and his not crossing it himself would keep the issue out of the headlines so he could get re-elected.

But what I think this proverbial line in the sand will do is let the Left define the debate, which is good. It prevents the Republican base from reaching out to the mainstream and allow the slower Democratic party time to frame the issue and to decide where they think the line should be drawn. I say we draw that line at a place that still allows for a morally defensible position.

Each year thousands of women have several of their eggs, human embryos, removed to attempt in vitro fertilization--to have a "test tube" baby. Sometimes they try to fertilize them all at once, but often they don't use all of them. The "leftovers" can be placed up for adoptions for couples that cannot go through with the procedure. This is a wonderful "culture of life" concept, I grant, and it needs to be maintained. But the numbers simply do not add up. And unless the religious Right wants to adopt every single one of these leftover embryos and fertilize them and raise children (Dobson take note: this is the only way your movement will be big enough to be respected by the mainstream), then embryos, as Kilgore pointed out, will be "wasted".

Where should the line be drawn? While I disagree with much of what Cardinal Keeler said, he does point out some rather useful facts:
...since all the "spare" embryos available for research cannot provide enough stem cells to treat any major disease, the proposed law would inevitably lead to creating human lives in the laboratory solely to destroy them.
The first part is certainly true, the conclusion doesn't have to be, however. This is where Democrats and pragmatic Republicans and Independents can shape the debate. Simply create laws that don't reward individuals for donating embryos, and furthermore make it clear that couples who want to adopt get the first embryos, while scientists only get the leftovers of the "leftovers". As long as the only embryos that are used are "leftovers" from fertility clinics and there isn't anyone who is willing to adopt them, then there is no loss of "life" nor does any embryo get wasted.

Cardinal Keeler does make one disturbing point, however. He seems to throw out there that since the number of "spare" embryos won't allow for any scientific breakthrough, then it will lead to embryo factories. Deceptive, Cardinal, deceptive in a Bill O'Reilly sort of way. What he should have said was the number of "spare" embryos currently available. As any good Calculus student knows (and by good I mean anyone who got at least a C), the embryo supply can be described both as a scalar (the number currently available) as well as a rate (the number made available over a certain frame of time) as well as a rate of a rate (the increase/decrease in the number made available over a certain frame of time), etc etc etc. Simply put, if the number of new embryos made available every year (after embryo adoptions) is enough to maintain some scientific progress, then no embryo factory is necessary. In skirting this logical step, the good Cardinal's argument does nothing to stop his fears. Addressing the real concern, however, shall.

This position is probably the most morally defensible position possible:
  1. Using legislation, both prevent laboratories from "creating life" and prevent any rewards from being offered for donations of embryos for the purpose of scientific experimentation.
  2. Place couples who wish to adopt embryos higher in the pecking order for who receives them than scientists who wish to experiment. Thus no embryos are wasted.
  3. Fund the living hell out of stem cell research. Simply put, make sure those embryos that are used by science are given the best possible treatment. After all, the faster we understand the power of stem cells, the fewer and fewer embryos will be wasted in experimentation and more will be used for saving lives.
Bush's pandering to the far Right has given Democrats a chance. I say we jump on it and beat the "Culture of Life" crowd at their own game.

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