Stem cells and the Kulturkampf see-saw

Here's a place for those of you who are so inclined to comment on the Obama administration's new policy on stem cells. That is to say, the latest tilt in the Kulturkampf see-saw. Republicans get in charge, it tilts one way. Democrats get in charge, it tilts the other. And so it continues, even in the "post-partisan" era.

I don't know what to say about it myself because … I don't know; I guess I haven't thought about it enough or something. The partisans seem REALLY sure of their sides, and personally, I don't know how they can be. But maybe it's something missing in me.

I suppose I was relatively comfortable with the Bush position because, near as I could tell, it was a compromise. But then, if I'm reading correctly, the Obama position is ALSO to some extent a compromise, because some restrictions will remain. And yet it is touted as a total reversal, which perhaps it is. I find it confusing.

It's not something we have a position on as an editorial board, because on these culture war things we are often genuinely conflicted. Many editorial boards are quick to sound off on these things because they are more ideologically homogeneous than we are. For us, it's not so simple, and we generally prefer to use up our political capital with each other struggling over the very difficult issues facing South Carolina, which are tough enough.

Anyway, if you read the editorials of most newspapers on the subject, you might think that there is no controversy at all, that the Obama position is of course the right and true one, and you need to be awfully backward to think otherwise — nothing short of a triumph of science over the forces of darkness. Some examples:

  • The New York Times: "We welcome President Obama’s decision to lift the Bush administration’s restrictions on federal financing for embryonic stem cell research. His move ends a long, bleak period in which the moral objections of religious conservatives were allowed to constrain the progress of a medically important science."
  • The Boston Globe: "We applaud President Obama's executive order reversing the ban on
    federal stem-cell research, and the return of science unhobbled by
    political or religious considerations." (Actually, that quote is not from the editorial itself, but from the blurb summarizing it online.)
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer: "Americans are understandably divided over President Obama's decision to lift restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. But he took the course that promises the greater medical benefit. In reversing a funding ban imposed by President Bush, Obama yesterday also took a welcome step toward restoring the rightful place of scientific research in guiding public policy."
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Federal funding is no guarantee that embryonic stem cell research will provide hoped-for cures to dreaded diseases like diabetes, let alone guarantee that any cures might come soon. But the executive order that Mr. Obama signed on Monday will clear away bureaucratic and procedural hurdles that have hampered that research. It provides an important new source of funding. Perhaps most important, it signals a new commitment to science ideals, free inquiry and open debate in American public policy."

The relatively "conservative" Chicago Tribune was more muted in its praise and even-handed in its presentation, but nevertheless expressed approval for the Obama move, saying the Bush policy had been too restrictive:

Sensible barriers to federal funding for cloning and the creation of embryos for research purposes remain in place. On Monday, Obama asked lawmakers to provide the support that will put the country at the forefront of vital stem cell research. It's now up to Congress to get behind the scientists. All Obama did was get out of their way.

And The Wall Street Journal? No editorial. But they did run an op-ed piece criticizing the new policy, headlined, "The President Politicizes Stem-Cell Research," with the subhead, "Taxpayers have a right to be left out of it."

That last point is one that one doesn't see emphasized enough, which is that this is not about whether research is allowed, but whether we the taxpayers will pay for it. And that's a legitimate conversation to have.

Another point that I would appreciate being updated on, and that seems to get ignored in the shouting matches, is the idea that the science has made the political argument moot, in terms of moving beyond the need for embryonic cells. That was the point made in this Krauthammer column a while back:

    A decade ago, Thomson was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells. Last week, he (and Japan's Shinya Yamanaka) announced one of the great scientific breakthroughs since the discovery of DNA: an embryo-free way to produce genetically matched stem cells.
    Even a scientist who cares not a whit about the morality of embryo destruction will adopt this technique because it is so simple and powerful. The embryonic stem cell debate is over.

Was that wishful thinking on Krauthammer's part? Did that turn out to be a dead-end? Maybe some of you who follow the issue more closely than I do can point to something I should read to that effect.

Anyway, I'll be interested to see what Krauthammer says about it, if he addresses it. He has an interesting perspective for someone wearing the "conservative" stamp. First, to my knowledge he's not anti-abortion. Also, he is a physician by training, and he served on the Bush administration's Council on Bioethics, which HE maintains (and I'm sure some of you will disagree, although I just don't know) was…

… one of the most ideologically balanced bioethics commissions in the
history of this country. It consisted of scientists, ethicists,
theologians, philosophers, physicians — and others (James Q. Wilson,
Francis Fukuyama and me among them) of a secular bent not committed to
one school or the other.

Anyway, that ought to be enough fodder to get y'all started, if you want to discuss this.

36 thoughts on “Stem cells and the Kulturkampf see-saw

  1. Lee Muller

    This is not about furthering research, because so many experts say it is made irrelevant and outdated by advances in adult stem cell cultures.
    This is an old issue ginned up as a justification for abortion. Radicals in the Democratic Party who want no restrictions on abortion and the killing of the terminally ill have this as one of the building blocks of their agenda.

    Reply
  2. Greg Flowers

    I have recently read in the Economist that the science exists to use cells from unfertilized eggs in exactly the same way as fertilized eggs are now being used. So, why is there even a question?

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  3. Greg Flowers

    Maybe I just don’t understand this sufficiently (and that is a distinct possibility) but the matter seems pretty straightforward to me: killing a fertilized egg is no different form abortion which is no different from infanticide which is no different from murder. I am not a religious person but do feel that the protection of human life is the most important thing we do. There are exceptions but I will leave those for another. On this I agree with Nat Hentoff, a very bright man with whom I agree with on almost nothing (except this).

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  4. David

    As I understand what the President has done and said, he has lifted the ban on government funded embryonic stem cell research AND has stated his unequivocal position AGAINST using embryos for human cloning.
    Let’s see…
    He fully supports the destruction of human embryos so that their components can be used for questionable research which may or may not be beneficial to humans, and…
    He’s dead set against the use of embryos to make more human beings.
    Wow.
    What we have here is a walking, talking, one man disaster. He is an absolutely empty suit, and the utter incoherence of his policies is dazzlingly apparent.
    David

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  5. David

    As I understand what the President has done and said, he has lifted the ban on government funded embryonic stem cell research AND has stated his unequivocal position AGAINST using embryos for human cloning.
    Let’s see…
    He fully supports the destruction of human embryos so that their components can be used for questionable research which may or may not be beneficial to humans, and…
    He’s dead set against the use of embryos to make more human beings.
    Wow.
    What we have here is a walking, talking, one man disaster. He is an absolutely empty suit, and the utter incoherence of his policies is dazzlingly apparent.
    David

    Reply
  6. Randy E

    Greg, the republicans, including W, contradict themselves.
    They ignore the in vitro process that creates this human life. The result is that embryos that are subsequently unused are discarded as medical waste. If human life is to be valued, where is the outrage about life disparaged and destroyed in such a way?
    Give the Catholic church due regard for the integrity in this issue by taking a stand against this medical waste and stem cell research destroying embryos for research.

    Reply
  7. David

    I apologize for the double post. My RAM got into a fight with my Mother Board and I couldn’t separate ’em.
    Dave

    Reply
  8. Greg Flowers

    That is simply untrue as the taking of life cannot precede the formation of life i.e. fertilization.

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  9. Greg Flowers

    As I say I am not religious and yet oppose abortion. The fact that something is legal does not make it right. This country being secular by design is something many historians will argue with you about. what the framers opposed was a single established religion.

    Reply
  10. Lee Muller

    There was no ban on using human embryos for stem cell research. If a woman or couple agreed to sell their unused fertilized eggs, they could do so.
    The ban was only on using federal taxpayer money to fund this controversial and unnecessary procedure.
    President Obama did not say he opposes human cloning. He said he will appoint a panel to study it for 120 days and make recommendations.
    You Obama supporters need to pay more attention to his weasel words.

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  11. penultimo mcfarland

    Funny that Brad finds stem cells worthy of discussion, but Obama’s snub of our strongest ally in all the world last week didn’t rate a mention, what with Brad being a military brat and all.
    Why does the media bend over backward to protect a president that would thumb his nose at our friends and embrace our enemies?

    Reply
  12. Greg Flowers

    This is off topic but let’s all to take a moment to reflect on all of those who have recently lost their jobs but particularly the 38 State employees, including Brad who were let go today. I wish all of these people the very best in difficult times and fervently hope that we soon see the end of the tunnel.

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  13. Pilgrim

    It is an ethical nightmare MOST worthy of discussion — but Brad is straddling the fence.
    How can you know so clearly that abortion is murder, but not have an opinion on embryonic farming? Embryonic merchandising?

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  14. some guy

    Brad — I’m sorry to hear about the situation at the State. You’ve done a great job staying on top of the education issues in the state — and Mark Sanford’s “choice” plans. I hope you’ll stay part of that discussion.

    Reply
  15. Bart

    Brad,
    I have been there and I know how it feels. You have my families best wishes and prayers.
    You have made a difference and I for one sincerely appreciate your contributions.
    I know you will land on your feet. Somehow, we always do.

    Reply
  16. Claudia

    Brad,
    You and your family are in my thoughts and those of my collegues. You will be missed.
    Here’s a wish that you’ll wind up in a better situation after all is said and done… life works out that way sometimes. You’re very good at what you do… you’ll survive and thrive.

    Reply
  17. KP

    What a nightmare. I am appalled. And very sad. I know you’ll be fine but it’s a bad day for South Carolina.

    Reply
  18. jfx

    Brad:
    Here is an excellent resource:
    http://dels.nas.edu/bls/stemcells/index.shtml
    From the section ‘Stem Cell Basics – Working With Stem Cells’:
    “By “reprogramming” adult stem cells so that they can turn on the genes that allow versatility, scientists hope to cause them to revert to a more flexible state. It is even possible that scientists could one day “reprogram” any cell, not only stem cells. However, research in this area is in the early stages and scientists may be many years away from making an adult cell as versatile as an embryonic stem cell.”
    In a nutshell, the embryonic stem cells from the blastocyst (essentially a pre-human compendium of roughly 150 undifferentiated cells) have a plasticity and capability of controlled differentiation that is the “ideal” for targeted application.
    The induced pluripotent stem cells derived from adult stem cells have the potential, with further engineering, to be just as universally plastic as the embryonic cells, in which case it would at that point be a no-brainer to use ONLY the iPS cells. But there are complications. And there’s NO GUARANTEE that iPS cells will be just as capable, across every level of application and treatment, as their counterparts derived natively from the blastocyst.
    In fact, one of the best arguments for running both embryonic and iPS lines of research is this ability to compare and contrast with respect to applied efficacy, while maximizing the opportunity for developmental breakthroughs.

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  19. jfx

    To follow up on one point…
    Yes, Krauthammer jumped the gun.
    From his point of view, the very existence of adult stem cell re-engineering makes embryonic stem cell research obsolete. This is an anti-factual whitewash, and the national academies and NIH certainly don’t agree with him. Even if we simply assume that iPS cells can do all we need them to do (an absurdly unscientific assumption), we don’t have any idea how long it will take to tamp down some of the complications UNIQUE to iPS cells that will inevitably arise in primate and human trials. We would measure any possible delay in years or decades.
    Given the potential of pluripotent cells, native or induced, and the feeling by those who understand this potential that opportunities for huge breakthroughs at the level of federal research were severely hamstrung during the last eight years, it is no wonder that many people (like Nancy Reagan) want to make up for lost time by maximizing opportunity through both avenues.

    Reply
  20. Fred Olafson

    Brad,
    Sorry that the decision was made to end your employment with the State. You are an even keel in a very rocky boat of current events.
    By lifting the federal ban on funding embryonic stem cell research President Obama
    may have loosed a runaway science project that will have far reaching affects.
    Private funding found other methods of stem cell research and there is still no absolute evidence that this will become the “magic bullet” for ending some of the severe health issues that are devestating.
    Having no hard evidence either way, let me finish by saying that it feels, to me, like the funding of atomic research in the 30’s that lead to weapons of mass destruction and a source of energy that is now so feared in this country that no new nuclear plants have been built in this country for nearly 30 years.
    Being an avid reader of history, you can sense the excitement in those times when the atom was being researched to it’s now ultimate end. This same fervor seems to surround embryonic stem cell research.
    It would be interesting to read a retrospective in the year 2029 about where stem cell research has lead us.

    Reply
  21. Herb Brasher

    Back to the original issue (can you believe that I am writing that?)–how can Bill Clinton profess to believe that embryos are not fertilized??? I mean, this guy is a Rhodes scholar? And why didn’t the interviewer press the issue:?

    GUPTA: Let’s talk about something you talked a lot about in the early part of your presidency, stem cells. There was an order today providing federal money for embryonic stem cell research. First of all, let me just ask you, as someone who studied this, is this going to always be as divisive an issue as it is now? Is this going to be the abortion of the next generation? Or are people going to come around?
    CLINTON: I think — the answer is I think that we’ll work it through. If — particularly if it’s done right. If it’s obvious that we’re not taking embryos that can — that under any conceivable scenario would be used for a process that would allow them to be fertilized and become little babies, and I think if it’s obvious that we’re not talking about some science fiction cloning of human beings, then I think the American people will support this… .
    GUPTA: Any reservations?
    CLINTON: I don’t know that I have any reservations, but I was — he has apparently decided to leave to the relevant professional committees the definition of which frozen embryos are basically going to be discarded, because they’re not going to be fertilized. I believe the American people believe it’s a pro-life decision to use an embryo that’s frozen and never going to be fertilized for embryonic stem cell research, especially since now, not withstanding some promising developments, most of the scientists in this field and the doctors will tell you they don’t know of any other source as good as embryonic stem cells for all the various things that need to be researched.
    But those committees need to be really careful to make sure if they don’t want a big storm to be stirred up here, that any of the embryos that are used clearly have been placed beyond the pale of being fertilized before their use. There are a large number of embryos that we know are never going to be fertilized, where the people who are in control of them have made that clear. The research ought to be confined to those. [Italics mine]

    Huh?

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  22. jfx

    Ouch. Good thing Bill Clinton was a politician and not a gynecologist.
    Thanks for the tip on the Krauthammer article, Brad. I read it thru RealClearPolitics. Krauthammer does “moral outrage” very well. However, he’s still avoiding the empirical specifics necessary to understand why the embryonic SC avenue is still not just relevant, but crucial.
    As Herb’s example above demonstrates, coherent explanations of politically-sensitive science, especially as regards public policy and the dissemination of accurate information, are often muddled by politicians and commentators, even commentators who have served on Bioethics councils. It strikes me as disingenuous that Krauthammer would quote a scientist, Dr. Thomson, out of context, to make an ethical point, without ever engaging the specific scientific details surrounding the research. When it comes to crafting a sound ethical position on a scientific matter, aren’t the details of the science important? But some conservative commentators are either avoiding or misconstruing the science. I noticed Kathleen Parker made the same mistake in her Post column the other day, essentially passing off embryonic SCR as an unnecessary, outmoded has-been.
    Please take a look at this link, which includes a refutation of typical propaganda falsely tagging embryonic SCR as “obsolete”, as well as one of the better concise explanations I’ve seen in the last few days of the different stem cell research avenues and the importance of the embryonic variant in that effort:
    http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2009/03/adult_stem_cell_lies_-_everyth.php

    Reply
  23. Lee Muller

    Bill Clinton flunked out of Oxford.
    That’s when he hooked up with the KGB for their sponsorship of his trip to Moscow.

    Reply

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