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Monday, June 11, 2007

No place for politics in stem cell science

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Just as lawmakers around the nation, including Illinois, were rushing to spend millions of your tax dollars to kill human embryos for stem-cell research, they were undercut by some inconvenient and untimely news:

Scientists may have found a better way to create the immature, pluripotent stem cells that, by growing into healthy tissue to replace diseased cells, promise great advances in treating or curing some major human diseases.

As the Washington Post put it: "Three teams of scientists said ... they had coaxed ordinary mouse skin cells to become what are effectively embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos in the process -- an advance that, if it works with human cells, could revolutionize stem-cell research and quench one of the hottest bioethical controversies of the decade." Much work remains to be done before scientists can conclude that it will work with humans, but it bolsters the argument that there are more ethically pristine ways of creating stem cells without killing embryos.

Significant numbers of scientists believe that the less controversial route to creating stem cells is possible, but their voices have been drowned out by politicians who would have it that if you're opposed to embryonic stem cell research, you're a "right-wing nut" who opposes all stem cell research.

Sadly, the new stem cell discoveries are not likely to slow this runaway train. The House last week and the Senate earlier passed legislation that would expand federal embryonic stem cell funding, but President Bush has promised a veto and a congressional override is in doubt.

In Illinois, the legislature has approved funding, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich has promised to sign it. Democrats will see no reason to hold off on the propaganda blitz in favor of ESC, seeing as how its more extreme proponents have bamboozled the public into believing that the only way to create effective stem cells is through ESC research.

Successful uses of adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells in various therapies are too numerous to recount here. It only needs to be said that ESC has not yet produced a single success, while non-ESC research has. Politics and ideological opportunism explain much (but certainly not all) of the insistence on federal funding of ESC research (even though there is no federal ban on private or state ESC funding.) Politics because too many people want to prove that Bush and persons concerned about the ethical implications of ESC would rather have people suffer and die. Ideology because they need to dump on the argument that human personhood begins at conception. (There's no argument that human life begins at conception; the argument is over when a human life becomes a person, endowed with human-rights protections.) In a word, the argument is about abortion.

ESC proponents will argue that whatever the successes of non-embryonic stem-cell research, such as that announced last week, it should not preclude embryonic research. The logic -- which is appealing -- is to proceed on all fronts and let the best technology win.

That, however, suggests that science has no room for ethical considerations. The consequence of accepting that premise is appalling; it would permanently end any discussion about the ethics of cloning, Josef Mengele's horrific experiments on Holocaust victims and all nuclear weapons research.

Understand what I'm saying before you reach for your keyboard: The science is unsettled about whether non-ESC research is as promising as or superior to the embryonic kind. But at this stage, the research tends to favor the non-ESC kind, in terms of proven advances and practicality. In these circumstances, it makes more sense to invest in the path that is less fraught with the kind of moral battles that tear at our fabric. Unless, you're more interested in scoring political points.

I'm also trying to say something more: The politicalization of science by the left to further its political goals ought to end. We've seen it with global warming (the science on whether we're causing it is not settled), the link between abortion and breast cancer (competent studies do show a possible relationship), and assertions that the over-the-counter Plan B contraceptive has no impact on the sexual behavior of young adolescents is without the support of a valid study.

Most of the public is illiterate enough when it comes to science. To compound it by twisting science for political purposes doesn't help.


Anonymous said...

"Just as lawmakers around the nation, including Illinois, were rushing to spend millions of your tax dollars to kill human embryos for stem-cell research [...] Most of the public is illiterate enough when it comes to science. To compound it by twisting science for political purposes doesn't help"

exactly....this was a terrible, "illiterate" article reporting (and over-simplifying) something that people have been aware of for months... and grossly exagerating it to meet your political views. But hey, what ever gets you read right?

No said...

"The politicalization of science by the left and the right to further its political goals ought to end...We've seen it with Intelligent Design"

Your article a typo. Fixed.

lynnlorenz said...

Why would we not prefer to use methods that are more effective and not morally questionable? Maybe I am too simple.

Brian said...

This is a funny piece, one of the funnier bits of parody/satire I've read in a while.

Only in bizzaro backwards-land does lawmaking restricting scientific progress NOT mean politicization of the scientific world.

No said...

"Most of the public is illiterate enough when it comes to science."

And how! Thank goodness religious groups will make sure things stay that way.

Crazy Politico said...

It's amazing how many medical breakthroughs are made by private companies, with private dollars on a regular basis.

Yet to listen to the ESC debate you'd think that without Uncle Sam's money there would be no medical breakthroughs of any kind, ever.

My guess is Anon, No, and Brian don't realize that George W. Bush is the first President to allow any federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. But then again, that truth wouldn't fit their pardigm.

Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

To the contrary, it is conservatives, in their zeal to prevent change, who politicize science. As a chemical engineer, I know that the science of global warming is settled, based on the computer model and historical CO2 samples in ice cores. Only scientifically illiterate journalists have a problem with it. The link between abortion and breast cancer is so small, less than 1%, that is it inconsequential. Yet abortion opponents seize on it as a scare tactic out of desperation. Whatever the effect of Plan B on sexual behavior, it is proven that teen mothers are less likely to be successful in life. Do you really want to deny people opportunity?

Many discoveries, such as the angiogenesis theory of cancer and the bacterial cause of ulcers, were made by researchers who were ridiculed by people because of their hypotheses. For the sake of science, those working on embryonic stem cell studies must press onward.

bmmg39 said...

Stephen, I hate to break this to you, but plenty of scientists doubt the theory that human activity causes climate change. Similarly, several scientists oppose embryonic stem cell research because they correctly understand that the human embryos involved are nothing less than human beings.