Thursday, August 24, 2006

New Stem Cell Extraction Technique Is Embryo-Safe; Bush STILL Objects

Last month, Pres. Bush vetoed H.R. 810, the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005," because, he said, removing stem cells from embryos to use in research for cures to various disease, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, is unethical because the embryo is destroyed in the process of stem cell removal.

H.R. 810 would overturn my Administration's balanced policy on embryonic stem cell research. If this bill were to become law, American taxpayers for the first time in our history would be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Crossing this line would be a grave mistake and would needlessly encourage a conflict between science and ethics that can only do damage to both and harm our Nation as a whole.

Advances in research show that stem cell science can progress in an ethical way. Since I announced my policy in 2001, my Administration has expanded funding of research into stem cells that can be drawn from children, adults, and the blood in umbilical cords with no harm to the donor, and these stem cells are currently being used in medical treatments. Science also offers the hope that we may one day enjoy the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells without destroying human life. Researchers are investigating new techniques that might allow doctors and scientists to produce stem cells just as versatile as those derived from human embryos without harming life. We must continue to explore these hopeful alternatives, so we can advance the cause of scientific research while staying true to the ideals of a decent and humane society.

Today, Nicholas Wade of the New York Times reports that scientists have developed a way of extracting embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo. Basically, they take one cell from the embryo at an earlier stage of development and use that single cell to culture an entire line of stem cells. This method has been used for years with in vitro fertilization to test for genetic conditions before implanting an embryo in a woman's uterus. The embryo can survive the loss of a single cell at this earlier stage; when done at the later stage, the embryo is destroyed.

The new technique would be performed on a two-day-old embryo, after the fertilized egg has divided into eight cells, known as blastomeres. In fertility clinics, where the embryo is available outside the woman in the normal course of in vitro fertilization, one of these blastomeres can be removed for diagnostic tests, like for Down syndrome.

The embryo, now with seven cells, can be implanted in the woman if no defect is found. Many such embryos have grown into apparently healthy babies over the 10 years or so the diagnostic tests have been used.

Up to now, human embryonic stem cells have been derived at a later stage of development, when the embryo consists of about 150 cells. Both this stage, called the blastocyst, and the earlier eight-cell stage, occur before the embryo implants in the wall of the womb. Harvesting the blastocyst-stage cells kills the embryo, a principal objection of those who oppose the research.

"There is no rational reason left to oppose this research," Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of Advanced Cell Technology and leader of the research team, said in an interview.

The key word there is "rational." Christian fundamentalists and their appeasers in the White House still object. Why? Because, according to White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore, "Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical questions."

Apparently, one such "serious ethical question" is informed consent:

Father Dan Fitzpatrick of the Catholic Church's joint bioethics committee said: "One of the main principles of research is normally consent of the individual.

"Embryos cannot give consent and the people they could become will obviously have had no say on whether cells should have been removed. Even if they are not destroying the embryo they are still putting it at some risk. ..."

Embryos cannot consent to chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis, either, although both are invasive genetic testing techniques that carry some risk of miscarriage. Should these procedures be outlawed?

Bottom line: This has nothing to do with legitimate ethical objections, or respect for human life. It's about one thing and one thing only: White House pandering to right-wing religious fundamentalists, whose dearest ambition is to make everything related to women's reproductive lives conform with a very narrow, particular, biblical literalist Christian theology. The Christian Taliban, in other words.

John Cole says it's time to stop appeasing these folks:

Embryonic stem cell research is not murder. Embryonic stem cell research is not on the same moral plane as abortion. Embryonic stem cells are not people. And pretending they are, and working to find a 'compromise' will, in my opinion, simply validate the complaints lodged by the loudest and shrillest of the morality police.

Remember who we are dealing with -- these are the same folks who think that gays are the root of all evil, and that a couple sessions in church can make you 'ungay.' These are the same folks who really do think or pretend to think that Terri Schiavo was just a few prayers away from playing volleyball before she was 'murdered by the courts.' These are the same people who think that the world was created in six days a few thousand years ago. These are the same people who think that NASA should be run by teenage religionists or that decisions about the morning-after pill are little more than political decisions to appease a segment of the base.

Do we really want to concede one inch to these folks, to give their fantasies and fears one shred of legitimacy? I sure don't. I understand why the researchers may be doing this -- so they can get the loudmouths to shut up, and then let the scientists get back to doing what they do best. But this isn't about actual science to the critics -- it is about political manipulation and the application of brute political force. And I doubt it will even appease the hardliners -- witness Mona Charen:

Cautiously optimistic on this stem cell news. If news reports turn out to be correct, the procedure they're describing takes one cell from an embryo (a biopsy if you will) and then coaxes that cell into making stem cells. The embryo from which the cell was extracted continues to develop normally.

Fertility clinics already do this to test for inherited disorders.

Again, if this procedure is really what it seems to be, then it passes a key moral test -- it does not destroy life.

We'll have to wait and see whether it actually does no harm to the developing embryo.

We -- you, me, science, and the rest of the world, have to wait until Mona Charen, from her seat at the National Review, decides if this 'destroys life.' You can't make this shit up.

And even if they decide this doesn't destroy life, they will come up with something else, probably with scary words delivered with furrowed brows and all sorts of shows of concerns -- "This may be close to cloning, which creates a whole new ethical dilemma." I can already hear it.

I used to think the appropriate course of action was to listen to their concerns. No longer. This is not about science, ethics, or concerns for human life for these people. It is about their political relevance. And if you ask me, they should have none. As far as I am concerned, they should be ignored, and if we can't find a way to do that, we can point at them and laugh at them if they still find it necessary to demand our attention and waste our time.

Cole and Steve Benen are on the same wavelength:

As far as I'm concerned, there's absolutely nothing morally or ethically dubious about conducting research on excess embryos that are going to be discarded anyway, but this technique nevertheless appears to address the "problem" for conservative critics. As Mark Kleiman explained, "It's possible to extract a single cell from a zygote without killing the zygote; IVF clinics already do that to test for genetic abnormalities, and the resulting children don't seem to be any worse off than those who develop from untouched zygotes. Now it turns out that a stem cell line can be developed from such an extracted cell."

Great news, right? All of the benefits of the medical research without the "homicidal" concerns. "There is no rational reason left to oppose this research," Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of Advanced Cell Technology and leader of the research team, told the NYT.

Unfortunately, as we've seen before in this policy debate, conservatives aren't terribly concerned about "rational reasons."

... Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, suggested that the new procedure would not satisfy the objections of Mr. Bush, who vetoed legislation in July that would have expanded federally financed embryonic stem cell research. Though Ms. Lawrimore called it encouraging that scientists were moving away from destroying embryos, she said: "Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical questions. This technique does not resolve those concerns."

Look, this isn't going to work as a policy argument. I remember during the frequently-surreal Senate debate over the president's policy, the principal argument offered by opponents of the research is that the embryos would be "killed." They didn't mind if the embryos were thrown away in fertility clinics, but funding research on the embryos is morally untenable, they said.

Now the administration believes any use of embryos in medical research is wrong — even research that doesn't "kill" anything.

This argument seems to take the notion of embryos-as-people to the logical limit. Practically speaking, the Bush administration seems to believe the research could move forward if embryos consented directly. Maybe scientists should start working on little, itty-bitty consent forms.

Or maybe not. Trying to appease unreasonable, irrational concerns that stand in the way of life-saving medical techniques is a waste of time. As the LA Times noted today, scientists should probably stop trying.

Laboratory advances that make stem cell research politically popular are welcome. But as Advanced Cell Technology has demonstrated, scientists have already gone to great lengths to answer political objections to their work. It's more important to focus stem cell research on saving lives, not on appeasing a minority of religious conservatives.

Some people just can't take "yes" for an answer.

Right. So it's our job to say "NO" to them.

1 comment:

ScurvyOaks said...

In his frustration on this issue -- a frustration I share, in part -- Professor Cole indulges in knocking down straw men. Always fun, but it doesn't change anybody's mind.

I was quite dismayed by the initial reaction out of Administration. The subsequent reaction has been more equivocal. I am cautiously optimistic that, when the dust settles a bit, enough conservatives will come around that this will be a politically viable way forward.