It has been all over news sites for a little while now (e.g. see here). President Barack Obama has – according to the headlines at least – lifted a ban on stem cell research.
(Incidentally, Obama made some political mileage lying about political opponents by saying that they opposed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research but the reality is, McCain has consistently supported it no less than Obama, so it’s not a republican vs democrat issue).
I raised an eyebrow a couple of days ago when I sat down to watch the 6 o’clock news and was greeted with the announcement that “New Zealand Doctors will carry out operations using stem cells” (see here for a newspaper report on this). The only reason I was initially surprised is that I had unconsciously bought into the trick (perpetuated by the headlines) that has been used: Get people to think that stem cell research = embryonic stem cell research, so that every time people point out that “stem cells” have incredibly useful properties, the impression is reinforced that embryonic stem cell research is the only way to make use of those properties. As it turns out, New Zealand doctors aren’t doing anything with embryonic stem cells. They are going to carry out procedures on patients with paralysis using stem cells taken from the adult patients’ own bodies.
Which brings me back to the start of this blog entry. Barack Obama has not lifted a ban on stem cell research. He hasn’t. There is not and was not a ban on stem cell research. Stem cell research is a promising scientific endeavour that promises much to people with debilitating conditions, and I support it fully. There was a ban, put in place by G W Bush, on stem cell research using human embryos. Adult stem cell research has been an active frontier in groundbreaking research for some years now, and will continue to be so for many years to come. The scientific and medical advances seen there are simply phenomenal. The example in New Zealand that I referred to earlier is just one demonstration of this. The properties that stem cells have that make them so great are the same properties that embryonic stem cells have. The more we know about adult stem cells, the more this is confirmed.
It has been known for about 30 years that stem cells are present in the tissue of the adult, but it was assumed that they could only form cells of a particular tissue. That is, reprogramming them was considered impossible. In recent years, however, pluripotent stem cells were discovered in various human tissues–in the spinal cord, in the brain, in the mesenchyme (connective tissue) of various organs, and in the blood of the umbilical cord. These pluripotent stem cells are capable of forming several cell types–principally blood, muscle, and nerve cells. It has been possible to recognize, select, and develop them to the point that they form mature cell types with the help of growth factors and regulating proteins.
From “The Case for Adult Stem Cell Research” – see that page for some fascinating reading on adult stem cell research.
What proponents of embryonic stem cell research are striving for is not simply the ability to use stem cells and help people (although I’m sure they want this). What they are doing is making the issue about whether or not it’s acceptable to destroy embryos. That is the issue, because even without destroying embryos, we can do stem cell research. Think of it this way: Just imagine that I advocated killing black people and taking their stem, cells. People say to me, “black people? Why kill them? If we want stem cells for medical treatment, we can just get them from the patients themselves.” I reply: “Don’t you care about people with parkinson’s disease? Stop standing in the way of science. We need to kill black people if this is going to work.” It wouldn’t take long before people realised that I didn’t simply want the right to use stem cells. I wanted to legitimise the killing of black people by appealing to a certain goal, a goal that you know full well I could reach without killing black people.
So the issue is not about conservatives standing in the way of science, which is the innuendo present in local news coverage of Obama’s actions. The intentional impression has been that until Obama’s decision, there was no hope of using stem cell therapy to help people with diseases like Parkinson’s, or people with spinal damage. Folk like Michael J. Fox appeared on TV leading people to think that only now has such technology been allowed to be unshackled. Not so. It’s all smoke and mirrors, concealing the real change.
The other issue, of course, is that killing black people for their stem cells would still be wrong even if there was no other way to get stem cells. Imagine shooting a black man dead, syringing out his stem cells, injecting them into yourself and being healed, only to be applauded by a crowd of onlookers with cheers of “Oh boy, who could disagree with stem cell research NOW?” This point was made brilliantly in a South Park episode called “Krazy Kripples.” Observe: