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Thursday, July 17, 2008

What Bush Got Wrong on Stem Cells

posted by on July 17 at 11:24 AM

W’s August of 2001 speech on the evils of embryonic stem cells was an early classic of his presidency, one of the first indications of his deciderish, rather than uniter-not-a-divider, tendencies. All his favorite hobbies were covered—simpleminded and peevish sanctimony, rigid adherence to a bizarre and inconsistently absolutist moral code, and disinterest in any sort of logical, thoughtful or informed critique. In short, it was a delightful preview of the following eight years.

Bush’s policy was to deny federal funding for any research on new embryonic stem cell lines created after August of 2001. This wasn’t a ban. Nor was it a system of regulations, well thought out or idiotic. Research involving any embryonic stem cell line created before August of 2001, all requiring the destruction of an embryo? Fine. Dandy. Not murder. Moral, according to Bush. On a line after August 2001? Murder, as it involves the destruction of an embryo—a murder good decent American taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to participate in, even indirectly.

Put another way: Under the Bush policy, if you have money you can do whatever you damn well please. Commission embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them? No problem. Pay women for their eggs? Sure. Create a jello-mold out of human embryo? If you have the cash, you can do it.

Federal funding of contentious research buys you, the public, the right to set rules and demand oversight. Ask the animal rights activists. Instead of banning federal funding for animal research, they focused on demanding massive regulation and oversight. Killing a mouse in a research lab involves a prodigious amount of paperwork, hours of training and going in front of a panel of vets to explain yourself. Even if your research is privately funded, most non-federal grants require you to follow the federal grant rules. Bush’s innovative policy of “do what you want, just not with our dollars” successfully shoved the most ethically contentious work out of the public’s eye and into the shadows.

Well, weren’t some embryos saved? Hundreds of thousands of fertilized embryos are sitting in cryogenic storage at in-vitro fertilization clinics around the country, largely because it is much more difficult to freeze unfertilized human eggs. Therefore, eggs collected for fertility treatment are typically fertilized with sperm, allowed to develop for a few days into a very young embryo and then frozen. The overwhelming majority of these embryos will eventually be destroyed, after the couple has decided they want no more children and the insurance stops paying for storage.

If you really believe that human life begins when the egg fuses with the sperm—as Bush’s new family planning policy assertsthis is the worst imaginable outcome. At least with federally funded embryonic stem cell research, a few of these embryos destined for destruction could be used to generate new embryonic stem cell lines, advancing medical science and potentially improving human health.

(If you want more, please continue on to a longer post at

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Good article.

While we in Medical Genetics and other fields are thrilled about pluripotent stem cells being useful in reinsertion of modified cells to cure impacts such as bone marrow and other such cell- and organ-killing disease, the reality is that for the basic underlying scientific research we really need raw stem cells.

The yield of pluripotent stem cells is very very low - we almost have to take a pound of flesh to get a small teeny vial of useable reset stem cells, and even more die when we modify them.

But raw stem cells have a very high yield factor and are easier to perpetuate in stem cell lines for the basic research in sufficient quantities to be able to use high-powered statistical analysis on to discover things.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 17, 2008 11:36 AM

Federal funding for issues with a moral component is inherently awkward since morality by and large is dictated by the states and not by the federal government. If stem-cell opponents want to ban stem cell research in their state, they are free to do so.

I think what most people don't understand (or at least I don't) is that embryonic stem cell research is not therapeutic in aim. As Will says, it's about basic research. In the end, the hope of stem cells is that you would be able to grow your own autografts; make a new heart from your own cells and there are no immunological complications. If you grow a heart from embryonic stem cells, it's not better than a donor heart.

This of course bears the criticism that as much as we might learn from embryonic stem cells, there's no guarantee that information will transfer simply into methods involving adult stem cells--in the same way efforts to turn adult cells back into quasi-pleuripotent cells have been criticised for the improbability that these will properly model embryonic stem cells.

In some ways, funding adult stem cells and limiting embryonic stem cells is in line with the criticism of the Bush administration that they fund applications-oriented research far more than basic research (which many say was in part to blame for the near funding-failing of the Fermi lab).

Posted by Mr. Joshua | July 17, 2008 12:38 PM

Even if you believe the idiotic assumption that cells in a petri dish are human beings, George Bush has been directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, REAL LIVE PEOPLE, for no damn good reason AT ALL! So his bullshit about the sanctity of human life is just that...BULLSHIT! He's just doing what the fucking pope wants.

Posted by Vince | July 17, 2008 12:45 PM

So, to translate all our scientific comments, Bush and McCain are killing Americans.

Some today, some tomorrow, and some in the distant future.

And making us a third world nation from a scientific viewpoint ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 17, 2008 2:08 PM

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