Stem Cell Predictions

I'm generally not in the prediction business, but the release of a a new report of IVF and assisted reproductive technology will throw high octane gas on the debate over stem cells.

And in the process, producing a lot of bad religion reporting.

There’s already been a lot of simplistic reporting over the work of the bioethics, especially with the removal (or retirement) of Elizabeth Blackburn from the council. Much of it centers around allegations made by Blackburn, in a piece in the online New England Journal of Medicine.

Here’s the argument. The Bush administration is using religion to stand in the way of scientific research, and is making what should be purely scientific decisions based on politics


At least that’s what this piece on Salon.com contends. Salon is one my favorite sites (even with the mini commercials you’ve got to watch to get to the good stuff.) The author Farhad Manjoo, points out the diversity on the bioethics council, and then makes basically this point.

It’s all about politics, religion, and values. And Manjoo captures the essence of the debate right here:

In its deliberations on embryonic stem cell research, the council has framed the issue as one offering no middle ground. There is no safe position in this debate, the council's report suggests: You either believe that very early-stage human embryos -- embryos that are just several days old -- deserve special "moral consideration" and should not be used for research, or you do not. You either believe that destroying these embryos is justified in order to realize the medical miracles that researchers say are possible with stem cells, or you do not.

To be fair Manjoo is a critic of President Bush’s 2002 decision to limit research on stem cells—which he says place limits on the “medical miracles” stem cells offer.

But because the cells that currently receive federal funding are likely unsuitable for clinical therapies, it's difficult for scientists to conceive of such trials ever beginning under this president. And that's the real problem with Bush's stance. What's wrong with Bush's stem cell policy is not that he has stacked his council. The council is in fact in many ways irrelevant, because Bush, examining his soul, made his decision on stem cells a long time ago. Now the rest of us have to live with it.

Manjoo has hit the nail on the head. The debates over stem cells and bioethics are not about science—they are about the meaning we give to human life, even at its earliest stages.

Is an embryo “nascent human life” with moral standing or a “clump of undifferentiated cells”? That’s not a scientific question. It’s a religious, moral, and political question about the meaning of life, one that’s too important to leave to scientists alone.

And, if there’s any doubt about the pure science behind those advocating stem cell research, Manjoo closes with this quote from Michael West of Advanced Cell Technology.

"Embryonic stem cells are magical. We've never had anything like this before, they are a whole quantum leap beyond adult stem cells. They're absolutely magical -- and that magic that the scientist sees in the microscope will filter out to the average U.S. citizen. Someday people will see this as a positive thing for mankind."


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