Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Bush faces GOP shift on stem cells: "Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham, 63, a conservative representing the San Diego area, says he wants to have a heart-to-heart talk with President Bush soon about embryonic stem cell research. He wants to change the president's mind."

"A Pew Research Center poll in 2002 indicated that Americans, by a 43-38 margin, favored performing research on stem cells over protecting embryos. In a poll at the end of 2004, that margin was 56-32."

"While Bush firmly rejects the bill on the grounds it would allow the use of federal dollars for the destruction of embryos, using the issue to fire up the Republican base in 2006 congressional elections may have limited impact. The GOP base includes many social conservatives opposed to stem cell research, but the vote last week showed a growing number of GOP congressional supporters."

"'Bush must be acting out of conviction [in threatening a veto] because the politics just don't add up,' said Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar. The vote 'reflects the broad support for stem cell research, even among those who consider themselves pro-life.'

"Opponents call expanded financed stem cell research unethical and immoral, and that is essentially Bush's position. Considering that support for the bill is strong in the Senate, Bush would be faced with vetoing a bill that has strong congressional and public backing.

"'The problem is that opposing the bill that passed the House is akin to opposing abortion in the case of rape,' said Republican political consultant Whit Ayres. At the very least, the House vote suggests the embryonic stem cell research issue may have limited utility for Republican candidates in future elections, unless public opinion turns around on the issue."

"Cunningham said when he speaks to anti-abortion groups about his position on stem cell research, 90 percent to 95 percent of the people understand. The congressman said he changed his position on the issue two years ago when a prominent San Diego medical scientist, Lawrence Goldstein, convinced him that many of the embryos in question would otherwise be discarded. He said he would convey that message to Bush."

This argument, "that many of the embryos in question would otherwise be discarded," to most on the Left seems obvious, and to a weakening majority on the Right is a "tough issue."

However, this argument is problematic for several reasons: For one, the embryos—tiny children—do not have to be discarded, but can be cryogenically frozen, and later adopted by couples who want (more) children to love.

Second, this "otherwise discarded" argument says nothing about what would happen to these tiny children, if we did turn the scientists loose on them. They may be embryos now, but no scientist that wants to study them and experiment with them intends to keep them as embryos. They want the tiny child they study to grow from an embryo into a fetus.

They want to study how it grows. They want to make sure that tiny child grows organs and tissues. They would then take those organs and tissues from that child and experiment with them in children and adults with "debilitating diseases" whose own organs are no longer functional.

They would take those organs because that is what the law requires. Taking those organs would kill that child. Thus, this law would require the killing of those tiny human beings. This would be the first law in the history of the United States to require the killing of human beings.

But as so many want us to say, if we put aside the killing part for a minute; would embryonic stem cell research produce prolonged life, less suffering, and cure diseases in adults? Would fetal tissue work as a replacement for adult tissue?

One of the cruel ironies in this debate is that so far in every case researchers have already tried the answer has been it will not. It is very likely that the reason they do not work is they are dissimilar. In every other area of medicine, doctors and researchers try to find the closest match to a patient. For some reason things are different here, and the researchers and politicians are trying to tell us that immature organs and tissues will miraculously work in mature adults.

That, in fact, is why adult stem cells have worked so well. Mature adult stem cells from healthy adult tissue grow into tissue that will be similar to the once-healthy, diseased tissue they're intended to replace in mature adults. That's why there have literally be hundreds of successful therapies developed from adult stem cells. Adult stems cells are the ripe area of research; embryonic stem cells do not even make a good alternative.

The astute observer of the biotechnology industry will remember that only recently did the Human Genome Project complete a map of the human genome. This project took 13 years to complete. This is just for a map; that doesn't mean we understand any of it.

Embryonic stem cell research is where they study how the human genome turns an embryo into a fetus, infant, young child, adolescent, and then finally adults that eventually get diseases and die. To suggest, as many in favor of this research have, that we will understand all this in a few decades is highly presumptuous.

But let's say in three hundred years or so, once Google has completed its mission, we do finally understand what each part of the human genome means and how embryonic stem cells work. What will we do with that information? Will the sure death of many tiny children in the process mean our ability to cure diseases is sure? Would we actually cure those diseases if we could? What if in some cases we can only predict diseases?

It is then that we begin to cross into unknown territory such as genetic discrimination. Even Senator Hillary Clinton recently spoke about our genetics being "the mother of all pre-existing conditions."

The other cruel irony here is this debate has nothing to do with whether or not we're going to study embryonic stem cells. This debate is over whether or not federal funds from the people of the United States will fund this research. Most people forget, and few remind them, that there is currently nothing illegal about embryonic stem cell research.

The private sector has all the freedom in the world right now to take embryos, let them grow, study them, and take their organs and tissues for use in all the experimentation the imagination can muster. Yet, despite all the promises of "enormous promise for addressing debilitating diseases," we have not seen the private sector invest its resources in this research. This is not because it has moral objections, but because there have been no successful therapies generated by this research. No therapies mean no return on investment.

The biotechnology industry also has the freedom to lobby the federal government to fund its embryonic stem cell research. The "enormous promise" is the federal funding. Once begun, the flow of federal funding is difficult to stop. What would be there then to stop the "harvesting" of embryos even now some supporters say they oppose? This is territory where even the most optimistic showings of restraint disintegrate into irrelevance. Federal funding of this research turns what had no return on investment into an endless return on investment.

But at what price? Put aside the money for a minute and think about what will we have lost as a nation? What will we have lost when we kill many tiny people while bringing false hope to a few people who are going to die anyway?

We have the freedom to speak up and say we don't want to fund the killing. We have the freedom to speak up and say we want to stop the killing. We have the freedom to speak up and say, "Let someone adopt these precious children."

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