Turn your eyes to the Midwest. There is a battle raging there that makes me want to fall asleep. It’s about stem-cell research, that heavy-eyed topic that lulls us to sleep faster than the combined forces of Tylenol PM and a bad book. Like the indecisive frog in a low-rimmed pot, we prefer to watch the temperature rise and hope for the best, than fight our way up and over the brim of the high-tech nuances of today’s bioethical stew.
That’s the way we feel as a country. The words “stem-cell research” used to be real headliners, but now they are sleepers on all accounts. You can only show so many Petri dishes on television before the viewer changes channels. But please don’t "change the channel" on me today. I will be short and clear, and I think you will be glad you stuck it out. I’ll give you the news first, then the analysis.
First the News
The raging battle in the Midwest is in Missouri, where an alliance of business interests, researchers, medical groups, and patient advocates has presented a ballot proposal that would enshrine the right to stem-cell research in its state constitution. If the referendum passes, Missouri will become the first state, after California, to take such a step.
This news is not just news. It is important news, and we’ve got to wake up. I’m sounding the morning alarm for two reasons. Firstly, when California takes a stance on social issues, we tend to roll our eyes. When Missouri, on the other hand, in the heart of the Midwest and Bible belt, tries something new, America listens and learns. Secondly, I let it ring because at stake is the Republican Party’s stance on this life issue. For the first time since the 1920’s the Republican Party controls both houses of the Missouri state legislature, as well as both Senate seats, and the governorship. Republican Governor Matt Blunt is supporting the ballot proposal, to the dismay of pro-life groups. Republican Senator Jim Talent, facing a November re-election challenge, has not taken a position on the ballot measure. If Missouri politicians, at the pinnacle of their Republican influence in the state, support a referendum that opens the door to therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem-cell research, the last bastion of political opposition to such laws will have thrown in the towel.
Now the Analysis
This is a battle for the American mind, not the heart. Our heart is not divided. We all agree the federal and state governments need to continue investing money in new research to save more lives. Nancy Reagan and Dana Reeve reminded us that patient care is about patients, and who can argue with Nancy and Dana? They represent the goodness of America and the beauty of marital love. They stood by their husbands in the good times and the bad, in sickness and in health, until death did them part.
But the battle here is about the mind, about what stem-cell research really is, what it implies, and what is at stake.
Stem cells are of interest to medical researchers because they can develop into various types of body tissues that in turn could cure disease. This type of regeneration of tissue has already given positive results in disease treatment through the use of adult stem cells. Many researchers, however, on both sides of the debate see even greater possibilities in embryonic stem cells, since they adapt more easily into a greater number of tissues. They are called “pluripotent” for their adaptability.
The use of embryonic stem cells implies, however, the destruction of a fertilized human embryo, a human being at its earliest stages of development.
We hear very little about adult stem-cell research. The fact is more than 80 diseases are treatable today through adult stem cells and 65 through stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. Neither of these two sources requires the destruction of an embryo. In contrast, despite years of research on embryonic stem cells, no disease has been positively treated by embryonic stem cells to date. Voters in Missouri will not hear these statistics from the groups promoting a state referendum. When referendum proponents are presented with this data they reply that they need more time and more money.
But let’s be clear. What are they asking for? They are asking for more time and more money to destroy human embryos in hopes of curing disease. Their hopes are good, but their ways are not. Part of their petition includes (if not restricted by a pending federal ban) a free-hand to clone embryos whose stem cells will be later removed, causing the death of the very thing (person) created. This creation of human life for medical research is what is euphemistically referred to as “therapeutic cloning.”
It would be naïve and dishonest to say their good-hearted objective of curing more diseases may not produce good effects. They just might. Nobody knows. But doing bad things (destroying human embryos) with good intentions, and even good consequences, does not make a bad thing good.
A Question for the Mind
Wheelchairs and hospital beds are real. People are suffering and we can’t turn a blind eye. Medical research needs money and it needs lots of it. The question is where that money should go. The rejection of embryonic research is not a heartless rejection of science or the hope that it may bring. It is rejecting science that destroys life, even unwanted life, or worse yet, life created for the very purpose of being destroyed.
The crux of the Missouri question is whether we are willing to recognize life even when it lives in a Petri dish. Whether we attain embryos from the freezers at fertilization clinics or through human cloning, their status does not change. They are human embryos. Whether one day those embryos will be adopted or even whether they are capable of implanting in a uterus, does not change their status. They are human embryos.
Missouri, we are of one heart. Are we of one mind? America is watching.
And those who are watching with me, what do you think? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. On this Friday’s interactive entry I’ll tell you about a cutting edge proposal for producing human pluripotent (the adaptable ones) stem cells without creating and destroying embryos. It is called Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming, or ANT-OAR. It may be feasible and also licit.