Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Stems Sell

Let's be clear about this issue: No one that I know of is against stem cell research. No one.

Disagree? Confused?

That is probably because you have listened to the press report on this issue in ways that are deliberately meant to marginalize the pro-life view as being heartless to those for whom stem cell research (SCR) promises cures. To hold such a view is to be "anti-science" and everyone knows that those who hold to such a view are the same religious zealots who are also "anti-choice" and the same backwoods Neanderthals who think the Earth is only 6000 years old. Anti science no doubt.

Forget the straw man argument against the Creationist label (as a side note, this is why I never refer to myself as a "creationist" when being challenged by someone who wants me to defend my view. They just can't get past the picture in their mind that goes with the title, "Creationist." For that reason I tell them that I am an "Intelligent Design Progressivist" when it comes to the history of life on Earth. They have no idea what that means so invariably they continue to listen, if for no other reason, so that they want to figure out what the heck I'm talking about). Let's just look at a summary of the facts about stem cells ...

The first thing we have to do in the discussion of this issue is be very clear about differentiating between stem cell research (SCR) and embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). All the issues that go into the "when does life begin" discussion as it applies to abortion are exactly the same as those that should be in play with stem cell research. The moral problem is not with stem cells per se, it is with embryonic stem cells. The reasons for this are obvious. Embryonic stem cells come from embryos! What is an embryo? It is not a "thing," it is a stage in the development of a thing -- namely a unique human being.

Embryonic stem cell research destroys unborn human beings. It's as simple as that.

When President Bush signed an executive order that stopped public funding for the creation of new lines of embryonic stem cells (he allowed the 21 lines in existence at the time of his order in 2001 to remain), he agreed to a compromise that allowed continued research on those lines that were already in play. He did not, in any "anti-scientific" way, prohibit stem cell research that was not embryo-destructive.

Our new president recently rescinded Bush's executive order so that ESCR will no longer be prohibited. Why would he do that? I believe there are several reasons, most that are related to the idolatry of human autonomy. It is a historically verifiable fact that we humans don't like anyone to tell us what we can or can't do. We're rebellious when it comes to anyone placing moral limits on our actions. Some refer to this human tendency as "The Fall of Man" and to the consequences of this trend "Human History" but that's a topic for a larger discussion.

In this case, some believe we should pursue this scientific area of research simply because we can. But that is not what they will tell you. What they say instead is that the research shows promise for curing all kinds of horrible diseases and that it is therefore a moral imperative we continue with ESCR for that reason. But once again the facts get in the way of the desire. And the facts are these ...

Even if you choose to ignore the most damning reason for allowing ESCR -- the immorality of it -- you still have to contend with the fact that what researchers find most attractive about embryonic stem cells is actually the biggest obstacle to the hope for their success. The cells that are capable of becoming the widest array of different tissues (totipotent and pluripotent stem cells) are also the hardest to manipulate and control. They have been found to create tumors and are actually destructive.

Meanwhile, the more differentiated kinds of cells (multipotent) which are derived from cord blood, placenta and adult tissues, are actually giving the most promising results. Chuck Colson recently commented on this topic (here) but the list of successes that have come from adult stem cells is extensive (detail here) and includes:
  • Spinal Cord Injuries
  • Heart Tissue Regeneration
  • Corneal Reconstruction
  • Autoimmune Disease Treatment: Diabetes, Lupus, Crohn's, Multiple Sclerosis
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • Anemias, Cancers, and Immune Deficiencies, and Other Diseases
From the most recent count I've seen, the final tally is this:

Successful Adult Stem Cell therapies -- 73 (and rising)

Successful Embryonic Stem Cell therapies -- 0

So, if both morality and progress work against the pursuit of ESCR, why is it still pushed so hard? That's a question you have to ask yourself. But when you do, remember that grant money and the promise of financial payoff carry a lot of weight with those who also practice the idolatry of human autonomy. When you add those two motivators together, morality and success quickly become irrelevant.

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