Rabbits and Stem Cells

A few weeks back I got an email from a medical school student at Northwestern--a student group was putting on a forum on stem cells, and she wanted to know if I'd be a part of it. The forum got canceled when another, larger student group scheduled a stem cell forum the same day.

Still, I'd been thinking some more about stem cells, and wanted to post a couple of thoughts.

First of all, let me say right up front that the goal of embryonic stem cell research is to cure people. Potentially millions of people. It's a great goal, in theory. So is world peace. Making that goal a reality is the hard part.

As William Saletan pointed out, support for stem cell reseach has become a crusade, cloaked in quasi-religious appeals to the miracles of science. Here's how Saletan described it:

  • The stem-cell movement has become ideological. One scientist who is organizing his colleagues for Kerry told the Post that stem-cell research has become an "icon" for broader complaints about Bush's policies. He added that his group has adopted "ideology trumps science" as its theme. A Democratic political strategist told American Demographics, "It's more than just stem-cell research—it's the symbolism of announcing a plan to eradicate major diseases, and part of the Baby Boomers' health care crisis."

  • To protect the symbolism, facts must be shaded. Kerry's pollsters must phrase the destruction of embryos in the past tense to dissociate this unpleasant necessity from the benefits of stem-cell research.

  • The research must be insulated from comparative cost-benefit analysis by asking voters, through ballot measures, to designate billions of dollars exclusively for stem-cell work instead of other medical studies. California is now pursuing this; House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wants other states to follow suit.

  • Any limit on stem-cell funding must be vilified as immoral. Stem cells pose a choice "between true compassion and mere ideology," Ron Reagan declared in his convention speech. In a statement yesterday, John Edwards warned critics, "It is against our national character to look the other way when people are suffering."

The Revealer found an LA Times piece that makes Saletan's second point crystal clear. Opponents of Proposition 71, a stem cell funding bill, have apparently given up the moral argument and gone for the cost benefit analysis. California is broke and can't afford the 6 billion dollars that a proposed new Institute for Regenerative Medicine focused on embryonic stem cells. The Times piece (and the Revealer) dismiss this idea out of hand:

"Arguing against Proposition 71 on its cost seems akin to opposing capital punishment on the grounds that a state can't afford the electricity bills."

I cannot make this point more plainly--if embryonic stem cells were as much a sure thing as the electric chair is, Proposition 71 would disappear. Private investors would be lined up to drop money in researchers pockets. They aren't because embryonic stem cells therapies haven't shown any evidence that actual cures would be forthcoming in the forseeable future.

It's worth comparing embryonic stem cells to a previous miracle technology--in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF was so controversial that the US government refused to fund it in the beginning, even thought it's backers--infertile couples--were just as passionate for babies as stem cell supporters are for cures today. Here's the difference--someone figured out how to make IVF work, and so private funders fronted the money that made the technology go. That's not happening with stem cells.

Here's my second point. Even if someone could turn make embryonic stem cells work, pursuing this research is still a bad idea.

Here's why--to make it work, stem cells would need to pursue human cloning on a massive scale. There's no way around it, as far as I can see. There just aren't enought left over embryos around to supply the need for research, never mind therapies.

Amy Laura Hall, an ethicist from Duke Divinity School, put it this way in The Christian Century: By supporting embryonic stem cell research, "we endorse and encourage an elaborate, systematic, routine industry of embryo production and destruction."

We're just not thinking through the consequences here.

This past week I came across a story that makes exactly the point I'm getting after.

In his captivating and cheerful book Australia, "In a Sunburned Country author Bill Bryson relays the story of Thomas Austin, who set loose twenty-four rabbits near his home in Geelong, Victoria, so he could have something to shoot at during his walks in the bush.

It seemed harmless at the time--what harm could a few bunny rabbits do? Not much.

But 300 million of them, as Bryson points out, is an ecological nightmare.(As this before and after set of pics from an island where rabbits were finally killed off shows vividly.) By 1880, more than 2 million acres had been picked clean. A drought set in soon afterwards, and the combination of rabbits and drought made million of acres permanently desolate.

We are looking at the same kind of situation with enbryonic stem cells. If the federal government funds it and researchers find a way to make cures work, then a mass production industry, fueled by human embryos as commodities, is sure to follow.

That's not the kind of future I want to see become a reality.


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