Microscopic Humans and Stem Cell Politics

July 18, 2006 Tuesday

HEADLINE: The case for macroscopic humans;
The stem cell debate this time may be settled quickly with President Bush’s first veto. In doing so, he effectively will choose to protect microscopic masses of cells instead of actual living, breathing human beings. And that’s a travesty.

BYLINE: Jonathan Turley


Once again, the nation has returned to the all-consuming debate over the fate of the embryonic stem cell. With the expected passage of a federal stem cell bill lifting President Bush’s harsh restrictions on federal funding, the White House has announced that he will veto the bill despite its overwhelming support among citizens and Republicans and Democrats in Congress. It will be the first veto of Bush’s presidency. All for the protection of the beguiling embryonic stem cell: a microscopic cell taken from a microscopic part of a barely perceptible mass of cells called a blastocyst, or early stage human embryo.

To get an idea of the size of the object of this controversy, consider the dot over the “i” in embryonic. I am told by Tim McCaffrey, a leading researcher of adult stem cells at George Washington University, that the dot would hold hundreds of stem cells, dozens of which would be suitable for research. It would also hold at least one blastocyst that contains the cells.

While imperceptibly small, the blastocyst is undeniably a step in the creation of life. This has turned the blastocyst into the poster (pre-)child for the movement to outlaw abortion. Abortion foes have taken the most extreme possible position in opposing any use of the blastocyst for research — converting the blastocyst into a type of “holy dot.”

Watchful eye is needed

Despite my long support for stem cell research, I am not in favor of unrestricted use of human embryonic material. There are dangers of a slippery slope if researchers could use in vitro fertilization for the sole purpose of “harvesting” such material. But the federal bill would not create such a limitless environment. Rather, it would focus on thousands of stem cells that are the byproduct of genuine in vitro procedures — used with the permission of each donor couple. These stem cell lines are routinely discarded by clinics but could be used for important scientific research.

Stem cell research could ultimately produce cures or treatments for diseases and injuries affecting an estimated 130 million citizens, including people suffering from such ailments as juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s, ALS and spinal cord injuries. Most treatments remain years away, but stem cell treatment has already begun in Europe for people with heart and nervous system ailments. Clinical tests with animals have shown astonishing success. For example, just last month, it was reported that stem cell treatment can not only repair damaged spinal cords but also regrow them to allow paralyzed animals to walk again.

Given such proven potential, most Americans oppose the president’s restrictions on research. Seven out of 10 Americans support fully funded stem cell research. Even ultraconservative leaders such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and conservative celebrities such as former first lady Nancy Reagan have opposed Bush’s ban.

Nevertheless, the president opposes even the use of discarded stem cells with the express consent of the couples. It is a position that is comprehensible only to the most extreme activists: Throw the blastocysts out but do not degrade them by extracting the cells for medical research or cures.

Treating these discarded blastocysts as if they’re some microscopic underclass is lost on millions of families with macroscopic loved ones suffering from fatal or crippling diseases. In 2004, I wrote an article on the personal costs of Bush’s policy for families such as my own. At the time, my father, Jack Turley, was fighting the rapidly advancing effects of Parkinson’s disease. On Feb. 19, 2005, time ran out for my father.

This debate is not about abstractions for millions of Americans. For me, it is about my dad. So I will not claim objectivity, nor would I want to. Once you go through the death of a loved one from one of these vicious diseases, you lose patience with the endless debate over the fate of discarded blastocysts.

A real life ended

My father was no abstraction of life. He was my best friend and the man whom I most admired in this world. With my mom and my oldest brother, Dominic, I held Dad as he died in a Chicago hospital room. In the end, he had lost so much weight that we had to bury him in one of my suits and shirts. It was the suit that I was married in — the day that we first suspected something was wrong with Dad, who suddenly could not tie his own tie. As my bride waited downstairs for the ceremony, I remember being slightly embarrassed for my proud father as I knotted his tie. It would be only the first of many increasingly degrading moments for this intensely private person.

Having gone through this nightmare, I cannot work up much sympathy for the holy-dot theory. Nor do I have much patience for the self-described “compromise” of Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., an unflagging opponent to embryonic stem cell research. Facing a tough re-election campaign, Santorum has proposed a bill that calls for more study into the use of non-embryonic cells or ways to remove cells without harming the embryos — which, in the case of the clinic embryos, would then presumably be thrown into the trash “unharmed.”

I know that the loss of five years under Bush would not have made a difference for my dad. But what made me angry — what still makes me angry — is that the president and his allies make the blastocyst, not my father or other ailing citizens, the object of their obsession. They are simply immaterial to the president’s faith-based politics. But these citizens were not some vague potential for life. They lived and, what should concern the White House, they left millions of newly minted single-issue voters.

4 thoughts on “Microscopic Humans and Stem Cell Politics”

  1. High Fives!

    Thanks for sharing and speaking out on this issue.
    I wish it all could have come about sooner for your family, the Reeves, and countless others including my own.


    Calif. poised to be leader in stem cell research
    By Terri Somers (Contact) Union-Tribune Staff Writer

    2:00 a.m. January 23, 2009

    … ‘It remains to be seen whether Obama will issue his own executive order that rescinds Bush’s, or whether he will wait for Congress to pass a bill that would create clear funding pathways for the research as well as outline rules for how that research should proceed’ …

  2. Patty C:

    I did indeed. It is truly wonderful science. We also expect further loosening of federal funds under Obama.

  3. http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-stemcells24-2009jan24,0,7749457.story

    JT, did you see?

    Stem cell therapy to be tested on spinal cord injuries

    The FDA approves the first clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells, which now appear safe enough to use on humans.
    By Karen Kaplan

    January 24, 2009

    …”As a Phase I trial, the study will primarily assess the safety of the treatment, which has been under development by Menlo Park, Calif.-based Geron Corp. for nearly a decade. But scientists, doctors and patients said they were most eager to see whether low doses of the cells would produce any therapeutic benefit.

    If so, it would help validate years of hope and investment in the nascent field of regenerative medicine. Besides patients with spinal cord injuries, stem cell therapies could ultimately benefit people with such intractable diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis…”

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