Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Skirting the issue

The New York Times reported today on a not-so-startling medical breakthrough- two teams of scientists claim "that they turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field."

Now, this is not the first time such a possibility has been shared, and it's definitely not the first time the media and other groups have waved the idea in the air as a sort of ultimate compromise.

For years, anti-abortion activists and other religious and political groups have fought stem cell research on the grounds that it is immoral, mostly because it seemed to necessitate the use of a dead embryo. Some of these embryos were the products of medical abortions, and some were produced in labs specifically to harvest stem cells. Both stirred up the passions of God-fearing groups literally screaming bloody murder and chastising the scientific community not to play God or interfere with the natural order of life and death.

Yes, stem cells clearly hold more promise for fighting cancers, permanent injuries, destroyed organs, chronic illnesses, diseases, birth defects, lost limbs, deteriorating brain matter and even the aging process itself than any other medical tool, but are such revolutions worth the destruction of an already-aborted fetus? What about ten? What if it encourages women to start having abortions left and right, under pressure from the medical community or thinking they'll be paid for their trouble? Won't God get angry if we start creating lives in test tubes and destroying them a few days later for want of their parts?

So now, lab-coated scientists are hacking skin cells like so much Ikea furniture- tinkering around with tinier and tinier parts, adding and removing pieces at will, rearranging and gluing together. It's really an incredibly cool process. But what really makes this development so vital in the eyes of the scientific community is that they may have finally found a way to get around the religious roadblocks of abortion and the creation/destruction of life. This development is the political grease they needed to push the whole watermelon through and fight for the funding they've begged for for years. As Wired put it:

Scientists have hailed embryonic stem cells as one of the most promising research fields in medicine, saying they could lead to myriad therapies. But currently, many stem cells are derived from embryos, which is a lightning rod issue that crosses political and religious lines. The new technique could sidestep ethical issues involving the destruction of embryos and collection of human eggs.

If the new method proves successful, "we can disconnect the whole stem cell debate from the culture war, from battles over embryo politics and abortion rights," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society.

This is great news for the medical and scientific communities, not to mention for people living with diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's, psoriasis, diseased organs, permanent nerve damage and more.

But it's still a cop out. We as a society needed this cop out in order to save lives, but it's not everything I could have asked for.

I would have asked that everyone who feels passionately about medical advances, saving lives and improving the overall medical health and quality of life for everyone speak up and vote down the idea that a potential human life is equally or more important than an existing human life. I would have asked that the leaders standing in the road of scientific progress be forced to make an on-the-spot choice to cure a loved one or destroy an embryo that would otherwise be incinerated. I would have asked that the members of the National Right to Life attempt to explain why haploid eggs- potential cells far more likely to be flushed in a mass of blood and tissue than fertilized into a successful embryo- have more of a right to life than living humans with 46 chromosomes and established families. I would have asked that the voting public watch these attempted explanations falter and finally vote on logic rather than on herding instincts.

I will take this alternative, and I will take it because it may save lives and because people who are suffering shouldn't have to suffer anymore. I will take this grease, and I will celebrate it. But we could have asked for more.

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