Dancing Around the Issue of Stem Cells

Kathleen Reeves

There has always been hypocrisy in the stem cell debate.

Scientists, long held at bay from the incendiary embryo, would like to be able to use the embryos themselves in research. It’s up to Congress to decide this question. But again, embryos have always been a part of stem cell research, even if Bush’s policy tried, in a way, to deny the connection.

On Monday, Obama removed some limits on stem cell research, and everyone is weighing in, to confusing effect.  

There has always been hypocrisy in the stem cell debate. Bush allowed research to be done on some stem cell lines. Why would he have done this if he didn’t acknowledge the value of stem cell research? But because the issue was contentious, especially among Bush’s closely-allied religious right, he limited access to a few existing lines.

Bush’s position on this points to just how confused and tenuous the opposition to stem cell research is. On some level, the former president acknowledged that to prohibit stem cell research completely would be irrational, since the stem cell lines already existed and the possible benefits from research were so great. But, in a concession to religious conservatives, he stipulated that researchers receiving federal funding could not extract the stem cells themselves.

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In other words, federally-funded researchers weren’t allowed to get close to an embryo. In this way, Bush kept his own distance from the embryo—those cells capable of igniting the religious right. But Bush’s 2001 policy allowed research on stem cell lines that had, at one point, been extracted from embryos. The embryo is always going to be central to the research, and we’re all going to have to face it.

Tony Perkins claims that embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary, since induced pluripotent stem cells, which come from adult cells, can be used instead. Obviously, though, embryonic stem cells are scientifically valuable in a way that pluripotent stem cells are not—or else scientists all over the country would not be advocating for access. Forgive me for deferring to the position of the American scientific community over the scientific musings of Tony Perkins.  

There’s a lot of confusion in this debate, possibly because most of us have never been near the type of lab where this research takes place. Most of us have trouble picturing an embryo in a Petri dish. So opponents use emotional language in an attempt to hijack the debate. Here’s Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey on the possibility of overturning the ban on embryo research:

“I don’t think it will fly because the movement in the country is in favor of life,” he said. “For Congress to say that the new guinea pig will be human embryos, most Americans will find that highly offensive.”

Most of the time, our “guinea pigs” are living things: animals and, yes, humans. Humans are “guinea pigs” in drug trials and behavioral studies. We support medical research because it is the only way medicine advances. And this brings me to what I consider the real question in this debate: if stem cell research proceeds and scientists find a cure for a certain type of cancer or for paralysis, would any opponent of the research refuse this cure for himself, for his wife, or for his child? Would his grief for the compromised embryo truly overwhelm his grief for his loved one? I dare anyone to tell me this is so.

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