Hoping against hope in Missouri

Rev BT Rice rouses the crowd about stem cell cures The website of the Missouri Coalition for Life-Saving Cures shows what
most voters, and not just in Missouri, expect from embryonic stem cell
research. Gathered in the website's "Stories of Hope" are two dozen
heart-rending stories of children dying young of chronic diseases and
adult lives consumed by disease and spinal cord injuries. They all
conclude with the same desperate plea: vote in November for an
amendment to the Missouri constitution; bulletproof our stem cell
cures from meddling, mean-spirited enemies of science and progress.

Although Missouri is a small state with only six million people, the
results of this referendum will be closely observed. Across America,
opponents and supporters are watching to see how best to persuade
voters who know little about this vital issue.

Hope is the straightest arrow in the quiver of Missouri Cures. In fact,
it is the only arrow that flies. But they make the most of it. The word
“hope” occurs dozens of times in the website, and the words “embryo”
and “ethics” hardly at all.

This is spin verging on deception. The miracle-working stem cells are
actually derived from dissected embryos. The process is better known as
“therapeutic cloning”, not the detached and technical phrase “somatic
cell nuclear transfer” preferred by the website. The genetic material
from a patient’s skin cell is inserted into a woman’s egg whose nucleus
has been removed. What results is no longer a skin cell, but a human
embryo. If it were placed in a womb, it could develop into a child.

The facts do not support the hope. Although embryonic stem cell cures
seem theoretically possible, no one has succeeded yet in growing embryonic
stem cells, notwithstanding the hopeful picture painted by Missouri
Cures. In fact the New York Times recently tipped a bucket of cold water over the research. Therapies are at least five to 10 years away, it reported.

"Many [scientists] no longer see [embryonic] cell therapy
as the first goal of the research, parting company with those whose
near-term expectations for cell therapy remain high. Instead, these
researchers envisage a longer-term program in which human embryonic
cells would be a research tool to study the mechanisms of disease. From
this, they say, many therapeutic benefits may emerge, like new drugs,
which would probably be available at least as soon as any cell therapy
Work on embryonic stem cells since 2001 "has produced no significant advances", says the Times, although it has allowed scientists to gauge just how daunting the task of working with ESCs will be.

Missouri Cures also spins the ethics by omitting them -- which is not
difficult if embryos are barely mentioned. This is a familiar tactic.
Supporters customarily brush off the word ethics as a stalking horse for rigid religious
dogma. Around the world editorial writers have dished up the argument of the publisher of the Columbia Daily Tribune, a leading Missouri
newspaper: “A sturdy band of religious activists believes to destroy
one of these never-to-be-human Petri-dish organisms is the same as
abortion, which is the same as murder. We must respect their right to
this belief, but we must not let it interfere with the progress of
lifesaving science.”

Nonsense. Stem cell research is not a religious issue. Neither Moses
nor Paul had anything to say about embryos or even cells, for that
matter. Whether the embryo is a never-to-be human organism or a human
person can be discerned through reasoned argument. After all, the
embryo is an entity of some sort. It is clearly neither a
madly-multiplying tumour and nor a very small goldfish. And if it is
not human, what is it? Philosopher David Oderberg delivered the answer
to last year’s annual meeting of the International Society for Stem
Cell research:
... the embryo is a human being even at the stage that stem
cells can be extracted from it. It is a self-contained, self-organising
entity with a full genetic programme giving it the complete intrinsic
potential, given only a hospitable environment, to develop into a
mature member of its kind.
* * * * *
But even if embryos were not human persons, vital ethical and public
policy questions remain to be answered.

First of all, thousands, even millions of eggs will be needed to make
this technology possible, a fact barely alluded to by Missouri Cures.
Feminists are concerned about health risks and the exploitation of
young women. Egg donation -- or “harvesting” -- is a risky and
potentially fatal business. A recent article in the journal Reproductive BioMedicine makes a strong case against egg donation for this kind of research:
Risks that may be justifiable for women seeking to become
pregnant are not justifiable for the purposes of research. Encouraging
young healthy women to risk damage to their own health by
providing eggs for hypothetical treatments for others is not ethically
or socially justifiable. Furthermore, it will inevitably be
exploitative to take and use biological material from donors to
generate products or processes for commercial use.
If there is a shortage of eggs, some researchers have suggested that
animal eggs be used, however repugnant this may seem. How can
therapeutic cloning be legalised if a major component in the process
seems thoroughly unethical?

Second, voters in Missouri, and elsewhere, deserve to know what’s next on
scientists’ agenda. Twenty-five years after the introduction of IVF
we have babies for single women, babies for lesbian and gay couples,
babies selected for their sex, babies designed to be free of disease,
babies conceived from the sperm of fathers who died years ago, babies
with three mothers, babies born to grandmothers. It was possible to
foresee all this at the time -- but doctors and scientists ignored the
downstream effects.

Now IVF is being used as an precedent for destructive embryo research.
As columnist Michael Kinsley, one of its most vocal supporters, argued
The better point -- the killer point, if you'll pardon the expression
-- is that if embryos are human beings, the routine practices of
fertility clinics are far worse -- both in numbers and in criminal
intent -- than stem cell research. And yet, no one objects, or objects
very loudly. President Bush actually praised the work of fertility
clinics in his first speech announcing restrictions on stem cells.
This time voters should ask where therapeutic cloning will lead. One possibility
is designer children. The technology which enables scientists to
manipulate embryonic stem cells will also make it possible to insert
and change children’s genetic endowment. Customers will be able to
order faster babies, high-IQ babies, blond babies, and so on.

It will also become possible to create eggs and sperm from embryonic
stem cells. As the Missouri Cures website notes, “SCNT research has the
potential to lead to cell reprogramming techniques that won't even
require eggs.” This also means that gay and lesbian couples could create
children which are genetically related to them.

Third, Missouri voters ought to ask what qualifications scientists have
as ethical arbiters. Are they better qualified than voters to solve
ethical conundrums? Probably not. In the sardonic words of American stem cell
scientist Maureen Condic:
"The reality is that winning the Nobel Prize does not mean
that the person has any particular capacity to evaluate the moral
dimension of his or her work. Anyone who has worked hard enough to win
the Nobel Prize has probably been putting in 80-hour weeks in the lab,
and really hasn't had a lot of time or inclination to think deeply and
meaningfully and powerfully about the ethical-moral issues surrounding
their work."
Fourth, voters should ask whether appearances determine humanity. The
logic of therapeutic cloning is that an embryo does not look like a
human being: it is too small, smaller than a full stop at the end of
this sentence. Well, science also tells us that the entire universe was
once smaller than that full stop, so this argument rests on very shaky
ground. But what actions will this principle permit if it is accepted?

If it is applied to organ donation, it will allow doctors to strip-mine
thousands of bed-ridden patients. At the moment, the United States,
like many countries, has an organ donor crisis – the gap between
patients and freshly dead donors is about 80,000 and growing. One
solution is to enlarge the pool of dead people. By redefining death as
what happens when your heart beat stops, not when your brain waves
flatline, the number of American bodies available for organ harvesting
will increase by 22,000. Patients in permanent vegetative states or
comas can also be classified as dead. The same logic which allows
scientists to kill helpless embryos will eventually be used to kill
helpless adults.

The decision that Missouri voters make this November will  have
far-reaching effects upon public health, science and law. To make up
their minds, they deserve more than spin.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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