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Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2004 / 30 Tishrei, 5764

Julia Gorin

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Stem the Debate: Unethical Science Backfires | Christopher Reeve's untimely death this week no doubt will endow the fight for embryonic stem-cell research with that much more sanctimony, and will inspire even more voters to heed Ron Reagan's Democratic Convention call to "cast a vote for embryonic stem cell research" next month.

But the widespread lust to create and destroy embryos borders on creepy. While the world fixates specifically on embryonic stem cells, the cells cultured from adult and umbilical cord tissue have been making all the breakthroughs — just as one questioner cited at last week's presidential debate.

The embryonic stem cell controversy is as charged as it is not because of religious right-wing zealots, as proponents of the research would have us believe, but because of abortion-on-demand zealots: it's a sneak tactic to reinforce dehumanization of the embryo. But the successful right-wing-zealot spin on the debate has more than half of Republicans supporting taxpayer funding of it.

The record on embryonic stem cells is this: Stem cells extracted from embryos lack appropriate developmental instructions. In English, that means they're so malleable that when a Parkinson's patient in China was implanted with them a few years ago, her brain grew a cancerous cyst of human bone, hair and skin. Does Ron think his father should have had a Siamese twin in his head to keep him company during Alzheimer's?

Speaking of Alzheimer's, the experts say it's unlikely that the cure for that particular disease lies in stem cells at all.

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"I personally think we're going to get other therapies for Alzheimer's a lot sooner," stem cell researcher Michael Shelanski told the Washington Post in June. The paper goes on: "Given the lack of any serious suggestion that stem cells themselves have practical potential to treat Alzheimer's, the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportions. It is a distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists."

But the public likes fairytales, and counts on the magic wand of government money to deliver them.

Recall when the issue of the day was experimentation using aborted fetal tissue, a precursor to the embryonic stem cell debate. According to that study, done at the Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, CA and published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 200l, when brain cells from aborted fetuses were used to treat Parkinson's patients — who had the usual tremor-type symptoms — the patients could now add uncontrolled writhing, twisting, chewing, wrist-flexing, head-jerking and arm-flinging to the roster.

In contrast, a patient named Dennis Turner testified at a Senate Hearing in July about the adult stem-cell treatment he received for Parkinson's four years ago. He related that his shaking had improved to the point that not only was he able to go back to doing big game photography, but also to escape from a charging rhinoceros.

In June, 2002, the most flexible adult-derived stem cell was discovered in bone marrow, capable of transforming into just about any of the body's specialized cells. In 2001, when an Israeli girl's own white blood cells were implanted into her spine to treat paraplegia, she regained bladder control and limb mobility that stopped just short of the ability to walk — precisely the hoped-for benefits of embryonic stem cell therapy that are a decade or more away if at all.

Meanwhile, there is no law against private funding for embryonic stem cell research. Yet PPL Therapeutics, the British company that created Dolly the sheep, shut down its stem cell research program after it failed to find a buyer. Today PPL focuses on what it calls "more profitable markets" like protein treatments for lung disease and cystic fibrosis.

In contrast, reports that Britain's National Health Service "has recently invested large amounts of money into storing cord blood from newborn babies, and a number of private companies in the US and Europe are also offering cord blood storage services." That's because U.S. researchers have successfully used stem cells from umbilical cords to treat genetic diseases in children. The Duke University researchers had been using cord blood but, continues the report, "until now have been unsure as to why their treatment was successful."

Perhaps it's because they're not using aborted fetuses or farmed embryos. Perhaps science is trying to tell us that the difference between an umbilical cord from a live birth, and a discarded fetus or embryo isn't subtle. Perhaps the ethical way may also prove to be the most expedient way. Perhaps science is reminding us that it has ethical lines that shouldn't be crossed — something that we used to be aware of.

The science-above-all argument is that in research, all avenues must be explored; one cannot pick and choose among them — regardless of whether the most promising of those avenues is capable of producing the desired result on its own.

But when did farming embryos for research and disposal become a legitimate avenue of research? If scientific research means pursuing all avenues, why not experiment on lunatics? Death row inmates aren't busy either. Nor, for that matter, are the terminally ill or the elderly. These people have far less life potential than an embryo, anyway. If advancement is the priority, why not take an example from the Germans and Japanese, especially since our research is for creating cures and not plagues?

Naturally, prisoners — and most lunatics — would never consent to being experimented on. And their advocates would defend their civil rights. Conveniently enough, embryos can't give or withhold consent, and their rights advocates are dismissed as fanatics.

But who are the real fanatics? When the debate is embryonic stem cell research, its proponents place science above everything else. When the debate is abortion — and science itself gives us ever clearer and earlier glimpses of "what" is growing in a uterus — the science-above-all crowd dismisses the science, even vociferously contradicting it.

So what we have is this: In the case of stem cells, all moral questions are abandoned supposedly in the furtherance of science. In the case of abortion, science is abandoned in the furtherance of an agenda. But the agenda is one and the same in both cases, and "science" is merely its pawn.

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JWR contributor Julia Gorin tours with Right Stuff Comedy and performs in the monthly New York-based show Republican Riot. Send your comments by clicking here.

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