Boston Globe, August 8, 2004
By Ellen Goodman, Globe Staff
WHO WOULD have dreamed that stem cells would
rise above their microscopic stature to become
stars on the political stage?
Until now, science has rarely made an appearance
on a party platform. Indeed, no campaign manager
has ever before said, "It's the stem cells,
stupid." But this year, there is a new
biotech front in the culture wars.
It isn't just that stem cells got huge applause
the 20 times they were mentioned on the Democratic
convention podium. There was the way Ron Reagan
ended his masterful speech with the call: "Whatever
else you do come November 2, I urge you, please
cast a vote for embryonic stem cell research."
Who knew the little pre-embryos were even running?
This was, needless to say, a poll-tested subject.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed more
than 70 percent of voters -- and 58 percent
of Bush supporters -- approve of using embryonic
stem cells for research. That's at least 10
times the number of voters who can actually
define a stem cell.
A little background, please. These cells, harvested
from five-day-old fertilized eggs, may offer
the best hope for treating some pretty awful
diseases. But the prolife opposition believes
that a fertilized egg is a human being. One
side's hope for a cure is another side's murder.
In the summer of 2001, George Bush gave his very
first speech to the nation on federal funding
for this research. In a compromise that satisfied
virtually no one, he declared that the government
would only fund use of a limited number of
stem cell lines already in existence. To make
a very long story short, publicly funded research
has been pretty well crippled.
Meanwhile, a growing number of folks -- even
those who consider themselves prolife, even
Orrin Hatch -- can't figure out why it's OK
to have fertilized eggs permanently ensconced
in an fertility clinic freezer, but not OK
to use them to find a cure for diseases.
The whole matter of embryonic stem cells gets
easily tangled up with other issues, like cloning.
When Ron Reagan did his CliffsNotes version
of stem cell science, few noticed that he was
talking about therapeutic cloning. Everyone
got it when he asked, "How'd you like
to have your own biological repair kit standing
by at the hospital?"
We're still a long, long way from having a Fix-It
Kit for, say, Christopher Reeve. But we're
beginning to understand that the politics of
the religious right may be in the way of alleviating
pain and suffering, diabetes and Parkinson's.
Embryonic stem cell research has become the
stand-in, the designated hitter, if you will,
for the struggle between science and ideology,
moderates and extremists.
This is how Reagan framed the debate: "Surely
we can distinguish between these undifferentiated
cells multiplying in a tissue culture and a
living, breathing person -- a parent, a spouse,
a child." It's not a question of whether
the pre-embryo has any moral worth, but whether
it has more worth than a person.
Does this resonate with long-raging abortion
wars? Of course. Those who believe in a woman's
right to decide also distinguish between an
embryo or early fetus and a living, breathing
person: a pregnant woman. Abortion, however,
is a word that, unless my ears failed me, was
never spoken on the DNC podium.
So stem cells are stand-ins for the abortion
debate. They demonstrate what's at the core
of prolife rhetoric and its implications.
As bioethicist George Annas puts it, "The
antiabortionist will say that the embryo has
the same status as a child and taking an embryo
apart for harvesting the stem cells is the
equivalent of taking a child apart for its
organs. That's the most antiscience argument
I've ever heard." Imagine instead, he
adds, if an IVF clinic were on fire. Is there
anyone who would save the fertilized eggs in
the freezer instead of a child?
When the Republicans arrive in New York, I'm
sure they'll want to talk about so-called "partial-birth
abortion." But stem cells are the wedge
with a Democratic label. The issue allows prochoice
candidates a chance to show the ideology of
their opponents and plant a question in the
minds of the undecided: "Who are these
Who are they? The same folks who de-funded the
United Nations population program, stacked
the science panels, fought emergency contraception,
and look forward to overturning Roe v. Wade.
It's just that somehow or other, it's easier
to see them as they hover around a powerful
and promising little cell.
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
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