Posted on September 1, 2010


Stem Cell Snake Oil

Dems deceive the disabled


Daniel Clark


Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett wants to delay the finding of a cure for his wheelchair-bound brother-in-law. Does that sound like an outrageous thing to say? Then why is there no outrage over Barrett's having said the same thing about his Republican rival?

a taxpayer-funded researcher at work

Barrett, a Democrat former congressman, is an advocate of embryonic stem cell research. Being aware of the ethical vulnerability of that position, he assumes the moral high ground by casting those who disagree with him as proponents of disease and disability. According to an August 25th Associated Press article, he said about GOP candidate Scott Walker, "I want him to tell my brother-in-law and every other person in this state who's in a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury that he wants them to wait longer."

For him to believe that Walker "wants" people to remain paralyzed, he must presume that embryonic stem cells will inevitably produce a cure, just as long as we are willing to commit enough taxpayer dollars to the cause. That belief is so lacking in factual support that it seems downright cruel to encourage disabled people to share it.

There is progress being made against spinal cord injuries, but in the field of adult stem cell research, which requires no destruction of human life. A small number of paralysis victims have already regained varying degrees of mobility thanks to these treatments. By contrast, the presumed benefits of embryonic stem cell research remain purely hypothetical. If anything is arguably causing people with spinal cord injuries to "wait longer," it is the diversion of resources to fruitless embryonic experimentation.

The supposed advantage to embryonic stem cells is that they can potentially be programmed to develop into any kind of human tissue, whereas the transformative ability of adult stem cells is more limited. For example, liver tissue might be derived from a cell of the patient's blood, but not his bone. The question is what difference that makes when the patient is also the source of the stem cells, as is the case in adult stem cell treatments. Okay, so you don't have any one cell with the potential to morph into all others, but you still have the patient's body, which is a supply cabinet full of whatever stem cells you might need. Dr. Carlos Lima of Portugal has had success in treating spinal cord injuries using cells of tissue from his patients' own sinuses. The fact that those cells lack the capacity to regenerate certain other types of tissues is unimportant.

Embryonic stem cells, because they come from a foreign body, carry with them the risk of rejection. This has created the impetus for so-called "therapeutic cloning," which would eliminate that threat by cannibalizing an embryo that is created with the nucleus of one of the patient's own cells. Therefore, in order to emulate the success that Dr. Lima, among others, is already having, all that embryonic stem cell researchers have to do is solve their problems in controlling the growth of the embryonic cells, and perfect the process of human cloning on top of that. Hopefully, that won't be too long for Barrett's brother-in-law to wait.

Ethics, shmethics!

These practical disadvantages to embryonic stem cells, as opposed to adult ones, don't even touch upon the stark ethical differences between the two. It is a fundamental, if often disregarded, rule of medical ethics that any experimentation done on a human subject must have the potential to benefit that same subject. Adult stem cell research is ethical because the only subject of the experiment is also the recipient of the treatment. Embryonic stem cell research is blatantly unethical because one of its human subjects, the embryo, is necessarily killed in the process, and therefore cannot reap any benefits that might result from it.

Even if the outcomes of the experimentation were reversed, and all the advances were coming from destructive embryonic research, we would still be morally obligated to reject it. The fact that Barrett, and most of his fellow Democrats, fervently embrace it in spite of its inefficacy begs the question why.

If Tom Barrett has any semblance of integrity, he should do what he asks of Scott Walker, and tell paralysis victims that it is he who wants them to wait longer for a cure. He should admit to them that he thinks the destruction of human embryos should be a higher priority than pursuing the most promising avenues of research, and then explain exactly why that's so important to him and his party.

-- Daniel Clark is a Staff Writer for the New Media Alliance. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.



Return to Shinbone

 The Shinbone: The Frontier of the Free Press 

 Mailbag . Issue Index . Politimals