October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 10, 2004
The 2004 Presidential election may well be remembered as the election determined by voter’s views on two wars: Iraq and stem cell research. While U.S. involvement in Iraq is a deciding factor for some voters in their choice between Democratic candidate John Kerry and Republican incumbent President George W. Bush, the issue of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is an equally passionate point for others. This November, these tiny, microscopic cells are positioned to play a pivotal role in the presidential election.
A Zoghby International poll commissioned by American Demographics magazine found that 19 percent of undecided voters would back President Bush in the November election if he would “change” his position on stem cell research. Veterans of the stem cell war might argue that in order to woo these voters, President Bush doesn’t need to change his position, but rather explain it. Other recent public opinion polls indicate that most Americans agree with Bush’s policy on stem cell research, whether they know it or not. Why the confusion? The Bush stem cell doctrine is often twisted, condensed, and misrepresented by media and political opponents — offering the electorate a barrage of half-truths and misinformation that makes it difficult to decipher fact from fiction.
To understand Bush’s position on stem cell research you need to look further than CNN and The New York Times. If these are your only sources for news and information on this topic, you are missing some key pieces of the information puzzle. Stem cell research is not a particularly complicated topic when it comes to policy. The primary components of the stem cell debate can be summarized in three categories: science, economics, and ethics.
The story of stem cell research often depends on who is telling it. By all accounts, human stem cells may have a revolutionary impact on science, medicine, and society. If the “stem cell war” paralleled the war in Iraq, you would find voters and candidates divided between those who support stem cell research and those who do not. That’s one comparison where the similarity falls apart: It’s a “no brainer” to declare that you support stem cell research. To say that you champion stem cell research is similar to saying that you support world peace. Everyone wants world peace just as everyone wants cures for disease and treatments for injuries. The real question is one of method: What are you willing to do to achieve it? To answer this question, the science of stem cell research merits examination.
Any serious discussion of stem cell research must begin with the scientific facts. All of our bodies have stem cells. As children and adults, these cells serve as nature’s repair kit replenishing and repairing cells as they wear out and die. The sources of stem cells are numerous; however, for this stage of the “stem cell war” they fall into two primary categories: embryonic and non-embryonic (or adult). Human embryonic stem cells are fatally extracted from 5-7 day-old embryos generally created by in vitro fertilization (IVF). In order to harvest these stem cells, the embryo must be destroyed — a moral problem of epic proportion for many. Yet, even the science makes ESCR uncertain. There is no successful animal model using embryonic stem cells, not one human patient has been effectively treated and no human clinical trials are underway. Apart from causing cancerous tumors in mice, the only known outcome of ESCR is a lot of public relations hype that makes it difficult to distinguish between science and fairy-tales.
Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are readily available in sources like umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, skin, brain and blood cells, and even body fat. Harvesting these cells requires no loss of human life with the added plus that these cells save lives. The National Bone Marrow Donor program identifies 74 diseases treatable with adult stem cells. Adult stem cell treatments have revolutionized the lives of many patients, including Keone Penn, Dennis Turner, and Susan Fajt. Thanks to these amazing cells, Penn is “cured” of sickle cell anemia, Turner’s Parkinson’s disease symptoms are held at bay and Fajt can walk with the aid of braces after years of wheelchair dependence due to paralysis from a spinal cord injury.
When you do the math, the score card reads, Adult stem cell research: 74; Embryonic stem cell research: zero. Any speculation that embryonic stem cells will cure disease and repair injuries is just that — speculation.
If the scientific potential of ESCR appears unsubstantiated and uncertain, why might the “stem cell war” influence the presidential election? One answer comes down to a catch phrase coined in the 1996 hit motion picture, Jerry McGuire: Proponents of ESCR demand that tax payers “show [them] the money.”
Contrary to the simplified slogans of President Bush’s political opponents, ESCR is legal in the U.S. It is also both publicly and privately funded. The only federal restriction is the Bush “stem cell doctrine” that prevents the use of tax dollars as an incentive to destroy embryos for new cell lines. The Bush policy sets no dollar limit on the amount of federal funding for ESCR; only on the source for the research. In 2003, the National Institutes of Health devoted nearly $25 million in approved ESCR and another $190 million in research using adult stem cells — a fact you might miss by reading many major newspaper’s coverage of the topic.
So, how much federal subsidy is enough? For some scientists, apparently no amount is sufficient. Whether the target is cancer, HIV, or heart disease, researchers can always do more with more money. When we consider how to best invest our hard-earned tax dollars, the evidence lies with adult stem cell research, not embryonic. Every dollar diverted into speculative ESCR is a dollar denied to adult stem cell research with its proven track record for helping patients.
Perhaps the most disturbing development in the stem cell war is the unapologetic cries (and applause) to “kill the embryos.” From news commentators and scientists, full-grown humans are targeting defenseless ones for destruction — all in the name of science.
As feminist icon Judy Norsigian stated during a June 2001 congressional hearing, “The embryo is not nothing.” Biology testifies that human embryos (whether implanted in the womb or awaiting implantation) are as Robert George writes, “capable of directing from within their own integral organic functioning and development into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of life, and ultimately into adulthood as, in each case, determinate, enduring whole human being.”
To put it another way, I recall a conversation with a friend who finally gave birth after years of infertility. Her successful pregnancy was the result of her decision with her husband to adopt frozen embryos created by another couple through IVF but not implanted. As Marlene put it, “What did I add to give life to my child? Nothing, only nourishment and a place to grow.” This tiny embryo implanted in Marlene’s uterus was self-directing and genetically complete — evidence that should cause us to think twice before destroying IVF embryos for ESCR or discarding them as last week’s refuse.
Our location — pre-implantation, gestating, or born — does not determine our humanity. Regardless of the stage of development, humans are not the property of other humans to be used in non-consensual research experiments. As members of the human community, we should care about other beings that are human. As Christians, we should be concerned for our fellow humans who are created in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27) and known to Him before implantation in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5).
As rational human beings, we are free to pursue the mysteries and miracles of scientific inquiry. Yet the Apostle Paul warns us in Galatians 5:13 to be careful that in our freedom we remember “to serve one another in love.” He writes, “For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others [your neighbor] as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.”
Who is our neighbor in the “stem cell war”? Of course, our neighbor is the Parkinson’s patient and the wheelchair bound paraplegic. Our neighbor is also the frozen embryo whose fate is to be discarded as garbage, destroyed for research or implanted in a uterus. The choices we make at this juncture of human history are not without peril. If we choose to sacrifice one neighbor in our quest to help another, St. Paul’s closing words in this Scriptural passage may ring true in our day: “If you bite and ravage each other, watch out — in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”
Carrie Gordon Earll