Not much is new in election year politics. Two candidates emerge from their various party conventions. Stem-winding speeches are given. Rhetorical advantages wax and wane. Issues are discussed, sometimes accurately, sometimes less than accurately, and sometimes bald-faced lies are told. The voting public, bright as they are, can generally cut through the rhetoric to ferret out the truth and decide where they themselves stand on the issues.
Rarely does a new or complicated issue arise in an election year that the public have difficulty wrapping their minds around. But stem cell research may be an exception to the general rule.
Getting a Clear Picture
One of the problems is the fuzziness of the language. First, most of us had never heard of a stem cell until about 5 years ago. Figuring out that these cells are very promising for potential therapy or treatment took some time. Then there are the two main sources of stem cells. And the language here gets even more opaque: there are “embryonic stem cells” and there are “adult stem cells.” But, “adult” stem cells don’t have to come from someone 21 years of age or older. Any non-embryonic source of stem cells—like umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, neural tissue, or even human fat—is considered a source of adult stem cells. And the term “embryonic stem cell research” seems innocuous enough until one learns that in harvesting these cells embryos are killed in the process.
So, perhaps another vocabulary is desirable. Perhaps “embryo-destructive stem cell research” is a more transparent term for the one form of research and “non-embryo destructive research” is the better term for the other. Though a bit less elegant, at least this helps us keep clear what the research entails.
Locating the Problem
Yet another problem plaguing the debate is that one of most fruitful sources of embryos for research is the freezers of the fertility industry. Human embryos are stored by the hundreds of thousands in clinics around the country. In many cases the couples who permitted the embryos to be generated for the purposes of getting pregnant, no longer need the embryos. The couples either have given up on getting pregnant or have had all the children they want. Frozen members of our species are being preserved on ice and have nowhere to go.
Here’s where the rhetoric really gets difficult. We are told that either the embryos will die or they will be used in research. Well, that’s not entirely true. At least one other option exists. Frozen human embryos may be given up for adoption to a couple who can and will bring the baby to term. This seems a happy solution to the problem.
Clearly, not all of them will be adopted; so what about the rest? Should they be used in a form of experimental cannibalism, dissected for their parts? Creating so-called “spare embryos” seems to be a sufficient indignity to impose upon them. We should give them a decent burial and vow never to repeat this ugly tragedy.
Besides, researchers have already made it clear that there are not enough embryos for research and the quality of the embryos is not sufficient to render them as valuable for research as embryos made explicitly for that purpose.
Now another term must be introduced into our vocabulary: “embryo cloning.” Is your head spinning yet? The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—the group who regulates these things in the United Kingdom—has just given one university permission to bring human embryos into existence through cloning so that they can ensure the “quality” of the embryos used in embryo-destructive research. Yes, you got it right. The very best embryos will be created for the purpose of dissecting them. If your moral antennae are quivering, it’s because we know down deep in our gut that (1) embryos belong in uteruses, not Petri dishes, and (2) that there’s something horrific about a human clone and kill procedure.
When you put it that way, fewer Americans find embryo-destructive research and embryo cloning very appealing at all—and for good reason.
Embryo-destructive research is premised on the promise that good will come from it. And, maybe it will. But that’s not clear at the moment. In fact, there are currently no therapies on offer using embryonic stem cells. In some cases, embryonic stem cells have made matters worse, even causing tumors to appear.
At the same time, non-embryo-destructive stem cell research has already produced over 40 potential treatments including the repair of damaged livers and remedies for heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries. Recent research promises a cure for arthritis and maybe even baldness.
Even if this weren’t the case, and embryonic stem cells showed more promise than they do, we wouldn’t be justified in killing embryos to get their stem cells on the basis of the claim that they are going to die anyway. Prisoners on death row are going to die anyway, but we don’t allow doctors to kill those inmates by removing their transplantable organs—even if they are going to die anyway and their organs can help others live longer.
Where This Leads
Will stem cell research continue to play a role in this year’s presidential election? Without a doubt. Will it be high on the list of topics that lead voters to choose one candidate over another? That’s less clear. Just as in previous elections, there are many pressing issues. Determining how voters will respond to those issues is a science all its own.
One thing is clear. Unless the American voting public demands transparency from the candidates— and from the media—about their views on any number of issues, the landscape will remain socked in by the fog of election year rhetoric.