September 27, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Big Science Portrays Embryonic Stem Cell Issue as Political Litmus Test

The number of articles in scientific journals on embryonic stem cell research (also called “therapeutic cloning”) has been on the rise, particularly those referring to Britain’s or John Kerry’s support of it (see 08/11/2004 editorial), and Germany’s or Bush’s opposition to it.  Though science journals are expected to be above politics, on this issue their desire for political leaders with liberal policies on embryonic stem cell research is palpable.  How do they justify it morally?  (For the alternative, see 09/03/2004 headline.)

  • A Nature editorial1 urged Germany to get over its hangups about its Nazi past and move forward.  Referring to a recent position paper by the National Ethics Council, the editorial states, “Its cautious tone illustrates how slow has been the evolution of attitudes towards the sanctity of life, which have been so deeply influenced by the Nazi abuse of genetics.  In no other Western country is the spectrum of attitudes towards cloning so narrow, and so skewed towards conservatism.”  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)
  • Michael Gross, editorializing in Current Biology,2 similarly urged Germany to follow the UK’s lead in liberalizing stem-cell research policy, even though two-thirds of the public oppose doing so.  He regrets that “those who believe that Christian morality rules out any research with human embryos insist that the current restrictive legislation should not be touched or even debated at all,” because “The trouble is that any further delay will contribute to the brain drain and help to slow down German biotech.”
  • Gretchen Vogel in Science has reported twice recently on the controversy.  In the Sept. 10 issue,3 she analyzed California’s Proposition 71, which seeks $3 billion in state bonds to fund embryonic stem cell research.  The qualms about cost and morals are set against economic benefits and predicted treatments for disease.  She quotes promoters who “argue that tax revenues and royalties from companies spun off from new discoveries will help offset the $6 billion it will cost to pay off the bonds over 30 years.  ‘You could think of it as an intellectual stimulus package,’ [Fred] Gage [Salk Institute] says.”  In the Sept. 24 issue,4 Vogel discussed the arguments in Europe over who gets to patent stem cell discoveries.
  • Giuseppe Testa and John Harris discuss ethical questions of using embryonic stem cells (ES) for reproductive therapies in the Sep. 17 issue of Science.5  Pragmatics include benefits for same-sex couples and infertile couples being able to have genetically-derived children: “We suggest that from an ethical and legal perspective, this procedure is most appropriately framed as a therapeutic intervention to treat infertility.  It replaces in vitro the physiologic function normally responsible for reprogramming the germline genome, analogously to the well-established medical technologies that replace other deficient bodily functions,” (not that social parenthood should lose preeminence, they are quick to add).  This is not human “cloning” – it’s more like modified in-vitro fertilization.  The social implications are important, however: “The possibility of an all-male or all-female couple’s being able to have a child sharing the genetic make-up of both parents in virtually the same way as for heterosexual couples is thought-provoking and can be used as a lens through which to discern our attitudes toward parenting and family, as well as our notions of what is ‘natural.’”  As long as safety is preserved, such techniques are no less natural than medical practice itself, they argue. 
  • David Baltimore (Caltech president), in an editorial in Science Sept. 24,6 targeted the Bush administration for what he feels have been politically-motivated, anti-science policies.  These included positions on HIV/AIDS (not enough support for condoms; see 07/15/2004 headline) and global warming (not enough support for the international policy), as well as ES stem cell research (Bush’s “arbitrary decision” to restrict research to existing cell lines).  He suggests two motivations that, in his opinion, have been preventing the administration from letting “policies track the science” – i.e.,“either religious conservatism or economically based political caution.”
  • The team that cloned Dolly the sheep is now seeking to clone a human embryo, reports the BBC News.  Does this represent crossing the ethical line of no return?  A representative of the Church of Scotland lauded the intent to find a cure for motor neuron disease, but said that cloning a human embryo to the blastocyst stage and then destroying it “raises big ethical issues.”

Meanwhile, adult stem cells continue to demonstrate promise, without raising ethical questions.  For instance, EurekAlert reported research from University of South Florida where scientists used umbilical cord stem cells to reduce stroke damage.  Recently also, Nature Science Update reported on stem cells from adult bone marrow being used to prevent a form of blindness, and the 08/27/2004 headline discussed adult stem cells being used to treat hearing loss.  See 05/24/2004 headline on the media bias toward ES cells over adult stem cells.

1Editorial: “Time to look to the future,” Nature 431, 385 (23 September 2004); doi:10.1038/431385b.
2Michael Gross, “UK cloning moves prompt questions abroad,” Current Biology, Volume 14, Issue 18, 21 September 2004, Pages R732-R733, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2004.09.002.
3Gretchen Vogel, “California Debates Whether to Become Stem Cell Heavyweight,” Science, Vol 305, Issue 5690, 1544-1545, 10 September 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5690.1544].
4Gretchen Vogel, “Stem Cell Claims Face Legal Hurdles,” Science, Vol 305, Issue 5692, 1887, 24 September 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5692.1887a].
5Giuseppe Testa and John Harris, “Ethical Aspects of ES Cell-Derived Gametes,” Science, Vol 305, Issue 5691, 1719, 17 September 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1103083].
6David Baltimore, “Science and the Bush Administration,” Science, Vol 305, Issue 5692, 1873, 24 September 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5692.1873].

The advice of the politically-savvy voter holds true here: follow the money trail.  The advocates of ES research are straining to find moral rationalizations for creating human beings for the purpose of destroying them, while the underlying drumbeat is always money, priority and prestige.  Big Science is concerned about who will be first, not who will be right.  Individual scientists who promote it have Nobel Prize dollars in their sights.
    Adult stem cells already have many successes, with no ethical problems, while ES stem cells have none, and many practical and ethical problems.  On empty promises of wonder cures, Californians are being asked to dole out $6 billion of tax money in an already-overtaxed state, climbing out of a severe deficit, to feed the Big Science appetite for glory.  If this is such a good investment, why not ask Bill Gates for a few tens of billions?  Why should taxpayers be forced to fund what might many of them find morally reprehensible?
    Baltimore’s anti-Bush article (see also 08/24/2003 headline) and all the others are liberal down the line, reinforcing our assertion that Big Darwinian Science is indistinguishable from political liberalism (see 08/05/2004 commentary).  He merely assumes that the liberal positions on AIDS, global warming and stem cells are the “scientific” ones, and that opponents are motivated only by “religious conservatism.”  Proposition: Big Darwinian Science is motivated by political liberalism.  Why let them get away with the opposite statement?
    Notice also the openly liberal gay agenda advanced by Testa and Harris, and their willingness to redefine what is natural by letting two gay men clone their genes to have a kid (a female womb is just a commodity they have to borrow for the procedure).  This is a “therapeutic intervention to treat infertility”?  What kind of doubletalk is this?  Two men can’t have babies; that is the law of nature; that is not “infertility.”  In this brave new world, where words mean anything you want, why not redefine cannibalism as natural while we’re at it?  After all, you are what you eat, and with a little help from medical science, the procedure could be made both safe and wholesome (see 08/28/2003 commentary).
    To liberals, “Christian morality” is the evil.  It’s the meddling obstacle in the way of scientific progress.  As the ghost of Mengele vanishes in the fog of political rhetoric (see 04/22/2004 headline), maybe the world would be better off if we followed the progressive lead of North Korea.  After all, their little god Kim Jong Il has no such Christian morals standing in his way of experimenting on humans, embryonic or adult (see this BBC News story).  The “evolution” of his “attitudes towards the sanctity of life” has been rapid, and the brain drain very effective.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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