Rhetoric and truth: The politics of stem cell research

Lessons from barrenness on a controversial issue, part IV/V
Published in Christian Renewal magazine, 15 February 2007

Whereas many of the issues discussed in the previous article in this series are widely unknown, this article will examine the most public aspect of this issue: the politics of stem cell research. What is the truth behind the rhetoric, and what stance should I as a Christian take on this matter?

Over the past couple years there has been a tremendous amount of proposed legislation that has been directly or indirectly relevant to the issue of embryonic stem cell research. At the time of this writing, the General Assembly of the state of Indiana is considering two bills that would require abortion providers to inform their patients that life begins at conception and that a fetus can possibly feel pain. Similar legislation was approved in the state House in early 1996, but not in the Senate. According to an Associated Press article published on January 14, Sen. Patricia L. Miller, one of the bills’ authors, is optimistic that this time the law will pass: “I believe that if this gets to the floor for a vote, it will pass both the House and the Senate.”
The “Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Act” was approved by the South Dakota State Legislature early last year; it was repealed by voter referendum, however, in November. This law specified that human life begins at conception and was explicitly intended challenge the constitutionality of the infamous US Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade.

As one should expect, legislation like these two examples has created a tremendous amount of political controversy. On the one side, pro-life organizations are hailing them as successes and offering their support. Pro-Life Wisconsin even encouraged families to vacation in South Dakota last summer as a political statement in support of the law.

On the other side, pro-choice organizations have lobbied extensively to oppose such legislation. According to a January 14, 2007, Associated Press article, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Indiana opposes that state’s proposed bills because they “intrude on the patient-doctor relationship and impose the religious beliefs of others on pregnant women.” Until the South Dakota law was repealed, the president of the Oglala Sioux tribe pressed to open a Planned Parenthood clinic on tribal land that would perhaps be outside the law’s jurisdiction.

Much is at stake in these kinds of legal clashes, and not just for the long-contested issue of abortion. Because the process of collecting embryonic stem cells destroys embryos, the practice would become illegal if the definition of human life is extended to include embryos.

Nor have these kinds of disputes been isolated to the United States. Canada and most nations in Europe have witnessed heated debate over the legal status of embryos. Although the eighth amendment to the constitution of the Republic of Ireland protects “the right to life of the unborn,” Justice Brian McGovern recently ruled that that protection does not apply to embryos. A Reuters report from November 15 quotes him as saying, “I have come to the conclusion that . . . frozen embryos are not ‘unborn.’ There has been no evidence . . . to establish that it was ever in the mind of the people voting on the Eight Amendment to the Constitution that ‘unborn’ meant anything other than a fetus or child within the womb.”

In the United States, the greatest political controversy concerning stem cell research is the issue of federal funding. In 1994, the National Institutes of Health Human Embryo Research Panel recommended federal funding of embryonic stem cell research using both frozen embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures and embryos created explicitly for research purposes.

Citing “profound ethical and moral questions,” the Clinton administration decided to permit federal funding of research that used existing frozen embryos, but not research that created embryos for the purpose of experimentation. In a December 2, 1994, statement, President Clinton said, “I appreciate the work of the committees that have considered this complex issue and I understand that advances in in-vitro fertilization research and other areas could derive from such work. However, I do not believe that federal funds should be used to support the creation of human embryos for research purposes.”

In 1995, Congress passed and Clinton signed the “Dickey Amendment,” which prohibited federal funding of any research that destroyed an embryo regardless of the embryo’s source. The Dickey Amendment is still the law that governs federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

In an August 9, 2001, statement, President Bush announced an expansion of federal funding to include research using already existing stem cell lines—situations in which “the life and death decision has already been made.”

In April 2004, 206 members of Congress appealed to the president to loosen the restrictions on federal funding and include more kinds of embryonic stem cell research, and in May 2005, Congress voted to expand federal funding to include research done on embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures. In the first veto of his presidency, Bush vetoed the bill. Similar legislation was passed in July 2006, but President Bush again vetoed it.

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research have often referred to a federal ban on embryonic stem cell research, as if the above-cited government actions have stopped stem cell research altogether and consequently ended the possibility of discovering cures for serious illnesses. Further, they have characterized the opponents of embryonic stem cell research as being inhumane, crushing the hopes of the diseased, and opposing that which is obviously good. However, even a cursory examination of the facts proves this to be more rhetoric than truth.

There is no federal ban on stem cell research, as some have characterized the situation. While there is a ban on using federal funds for most embryonic stem cell research, stem cell research—indeed, even embryonic stem cell research—continues. This research is funded privately, through federal funding of non-embryonic stem cell research, and through federal funding of existing lines of embryonic stem cells, the ones President Bush described as being past the point of a life-and-death decision.

According to the National Institutes of Heath, federal funding of research using existing embryonic stem cell lines has averaged $39 million per year from 2005-2007. Meanwhile, federal funding of the several forms of non-embryonic stem cell research has averaged $200 million per year over that same span of time, for a total of $239 million spent on stem cell research. Clearly stem cell research is not an issue that is being ignored by the federal government, nor can it be said that opposing embryonic stem cell research means dashing the hopes of ill Americans.

Despite these facts, a July 20, 2006, editorial by the LA Times commented on President Bush’s first veto: “[Bush] landed quite a blow against scientific progress and human health. . . . Fertility clinics destroy thousands of embryos every year, byproducts of the in-vitro fertilization process. The bill would have allowed federal funding only for stem cell lines made from embryos that were destined for destruction, not adoption. No lives will be saved by the president’s veto, but it’s quite possible that many will be lost, victims of complications of diseases that embryonic stem cells could one day cure.”

Such comments are typical of the disinformation that is so common in the political debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research. This kind of argument ignores several essential facts: There is no ban; stem cell research continues. The federal government is still funding it to the amount of $239 million per year, which is more than federal funding for childhood leukemia, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, Hodgkin’s disease, and spina bifida combined. And there are ways of doing stem cell research that are as promising as embryonic stem cell research, but do not threaten human life.

Even aside from these facts, it is never right, no matter how beneficial the possible outcome, to take advantage of the destruction of human life. If these embryos are human beings, then using them for research just because they will eventually be discarded is little different than permitting a murder in order to give the victim’s organs to those needing an organ transplant. If a human life is about to be taken, is it not better to attempt to intervene and preserve it instead of attempting to profit from it?

Further, the claim that opponents of embryonic stem cell research are hampering inevitable scientific progress toward medical breakthrough gives false hopes to the ill. While stem cell research undoubtedly offers hope for curing certain illnesses, there is no guarantee that it will provide any cures at all. Even if it does, researchers caution that such progress might be still years or perhaps decades away, meaning that those who are already suffering from serious disease might receive little benefit from stem cell research.

As is common in political debate, the most vulnerable members of society are the most manipulated and used for rhetorical purposes. If there are equally promising alternatives to embryonic stem cell research that do not destroy human life, and if stem cell research is already being given $239 million per year by the federal government, one must wonder: what is the real political issue driving this debate? Why are proponents of embryonic stem cell research willing to invest so much in swaying public opinion when stem cell research is already underway and progressing at an impressive rate? Is it really about infringement of the “patient-doctor relationship,” as the president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana stated it, or is something else related to the humanness of an embryo fueling the politics of stem cell research?

Read more: the firstsecondthird, and fifth articles in this series.

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