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A Tempest in a Lab-Flask
Too Much Ado Over Too-Few Stem Cells
J. C. Adamson

It's hard for me to comprehend how the subject of stem-cell research got to be the most important item on our nation's agenda, and how the decision about funding it got to be such a difficult choice.

The decision to proceed is, in the popular parlance, a no-brainer. Many thousands-probably millions of people are desperate for the medical advances that may accrue from the research. Many millions more-probably hundreds of millions worldwide may benefit from the fruits of this science. 

For this to be a difficult decision, there must be some downside. I can't see one. Some would ask us to equate destruction of an embryo with the taking of a life. The argument is absurd. These embryos, these minute surplus collections of cells have little more potential for creating life than does the glint in a young man's eye when he spies a pretty girl. If not used for the research in question, they will simply die. Why is the destruction of such an embryo better than allowing it to have the potential of saving or bettering countless lives?

The embryos that are being used and considered for this research are not human beings. They cannot survive on their own. At this state of the science, they can only be viable if they are implanted into a woman's womb. And none of these embryos are candidates for that procedure. These are all, in fact, embryos that have been discarded by their parents, typically because other embryos created at the same time have already been implanted in a mother, and have developed into an actual giggling, crying, squirming human baby. 

Actually, even though this is admittedly a more complicated question, I wouldn't have difficulty with deliberately creating as many of these embryos as are necessary to conduct the valuable research for which they can be used. Every cell of every embryo so created would live a glorious, purposeful life, spent in the saving and betterment of actual human lives. What could be a more noble human achievement?

My other befuddlement though is the attention the issue has received. President Bush certainly contributed to the frenzy by making his announcement the only subject of his first television address to the American people. This gives the issue more weight than the bloodshed in Israel and Palestine, more than the bombing of Iraq, more than the potential end to the fragile peace in Ireland, more than the economic toll of continuing interest payments on a nearly six-trillion dollar debt, more than the electric energy crisis in California-more than anything Bush has done or attempted to do in the first fourteen percent of his term. In the days after his announcement, the issue dominated the most serious television news sources in our land, and was extensively covered in print. In their first broadcasts after the President's address, The News Hour, Face the Nation, Meet the Press, and This Week all spent most of their time and resources on the story.

This is not the most important story in the land. It can't be more important than the economic future of the nation. It can't be more important than potential wars that could grow to involve the U. S. to significant degrees.

But even if the major health concerns affected by stem-cell research are of paramount importance, this decision isn't the most important facet of those issues. Bush's decision will have relatively little effect. The basic research addressed by his policy stand is already ongoing, and in the near future will be expanded only marginally by the infusion of government funding.  The action purports to have made sixty stem-cell lines available for government-funded research, when a more inclusive policy might have made thousands or hundreds of thousands of lines available.  Then, other arenas of research into the many diseases and afflictions involved may prove to be much more important than the stem-cell research. 

And, once again, our American ethnocentricity is showing badly. Whether or not the U. S. funds this research, other nations will, and indeed are already funding it. The British government even supports research into the use of cloning to expand stem-cell stocks. 

George W. Bush and the political factions to which he pays obeisance with this decision, seem a bit like sixteenth and seventeenth century clerics who attempted to thwart legitimate scientific inquiry into the nature of the cosmos. However, as great as was the work of Galileo and Copernicus the, potential benefit to humankind of twenty-first century biological science dwarfs anything we gained from those earlier masters of science.

When will we learn that the smothering of inquiry and learning is never successful, never even possible, and always destructive?
Copyright © 2001 J. C. Adamson

copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson