Stem Cells, Snowflakes and Lunacy

by Orpheus

Revolution #005, June 12, 2005, posted at

On May 20, an article in the journal Science announced that a South Korean research group headed by Dr. Woo Suk Hwang made an astonishing breakthrough in stem cell research.

Hwang's research group succeeded in inserting DNA from a human body cell into a human egg cell, leading to the development of embryonic stem cells. This new procedure is called therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). It holds the potential of leading to the treatment, and even solution, of serious medical problems affecting tens of millions of people.

In any sane and critically thinking society not run by religious lunatics, this major breakthrough would have been celebrated and hailed.

Instead, the fundamentalist president of the world's most technologically developed imperialist power announced that further research on this crucial question was dangerous and unacceptable.

Instead of moving quickly to support further research needed to work out many of the questions involved with realizing the potential of this and other embryonic stem cell research, President Bush threatened to veto a House bill that would relax certain restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research.

George Bush and His Embryos

The House bill would simply allow federal funding (now prohibited) for research using excess embryos developed through in-vitro fertilization (IVF) that are now routinely thrown away.1

Bush appeared at a White House news conference on May 23. He was surrounded by families with babies produced by IVF from excess frozen human embryos donated by other couples. Also on hand were ghouls of the Christian right. Bush used this scene as a photo-op to spread fundamentalist nonsense and suppression of medical research.

The scene reminded me of pictures I've seen of Hitler with "Aryan" children gathered around him during the lead-up to war and the holocaust in Nazi Germany.

Here was the fascist butcher Bush—who is directing the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, who as governor of Texas executed more inmates than any other governor, and who stands on top of a world order where up to 50,000 people die each day from disease and hunger—speaking again of his support for a "culture of life."

Apparently this "culture of life" does not extend to the millions of people in the U.S. alone who have died from diseases that embryonic stem cells have the potential to treat, or the literally hundreds of millions worldwide who could benefit from advances in the research.

The man who denies the truth of evolution and the reality of global warming, as the economic system he leads strangles the life out of the planet, talked about doing only medical research with "the highest moral standards." Bush said that the bill before the House that he threatened to veto would cross a "critical ethical line" by "creating incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life."

Instead, said Bush, the excess frozen embryos produced by IVF—which are now being called "snowflake babies"—should be "adopted" by parents who can't have kids of their own. I could only picture Bush with his own "adopted embryo" in hand—smaller than a dot on his finger tip. It took me back to the hilarious Monty Python routine in "The Meaning of Life" where fools parade around singing "every sperm is sacred" as Catholic women pop out one baby after another while not even stopping from doing dishes.

It is shocking and outrageous that the ruling policy on stem cell research in this country is based on religious fundamentalist morality, in opposition to sound medical fact and reasoning. And if this policy stands it will have terrible consequences for those for whom embryonic stem cell research may hold great promise.

Human Embryos and "Human Life"

Bush and his cronies portray embryos as the same thing as a human child. House Majority leader and leading Christian fascist Tom DeLay said that the approval of the House bill would fund "the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings."

Let's demystify this—these embryos are a ball of cells, smaller than a grain of sand and frozen four to five days after fertilization. To call such a tiny mix of cells at such an early stage—before any differentiation into even specific cell types—a "human life" is just know-nothing lunacy.

Equating a frozen embryo with a fully human child is to deny that the embryo must be first successfully implanted in a woman's uterus and then go through a nine-month process of development as part of a woman's body. And it's also to deny that what makes us human is our social life and independent existence in the world—which require being born!

As long as reproduction is only possible by this developmental process, the life and needs of women as fully human individuals must come first and before the subsidiary process of fetal development. Women are not incubators!

Stem Cell Research, Science, and the Future

What is needed is an expansion of the vital research around human embryonic stem cells, guided by a morality that is consistent with a scientific understanding of the world and that actually promotes the interests of humanity.

What will it mean if all the things that might possibly arise from this research are prevented from happening? How will it affect the lives of people now and in the future who are suffering, who can't walk, who may die from the diseases that stem cell research may someday help overcome? What kind of society will this be if know-nothing religious absolutism is allowed to replace science and critical thinking in one sphere after another?

It's a horror that the direction of things in the U.S. is toward a fundamentalist theocracy—especially at a time when new breakthroughs are opening up new vistas for human potential. This can't be allowed to take place! We need to unleash the creative human spirit in science, in art, and in every sphere. We need a revolutionary society leading to real communism that could develop critical, questioning, and scientific thought in a way now only imagined.

Embryonic stem cells
are undifferentiated cells from three to five-day-old embryos (generated after a sperm fertilizes an egg or therapeutic cloning—see below). While adult stem cells and stem cells from umbilical cord fluid can also be used in research, these cells in general don't have the same advantages as embryonic stem cells, which can potentially differentiate into any cell type in the body. Embryonic stem cells grow and divide much more easily than adult stem cells. So there is a much greater chance of developing both the number and type of cells necessary for research or therapy through use of embryonic stem cells as opposed to other stem cells.
Therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT),
is a new technique using human or animal cells. When done with human cells, the DNA from a "somatic" (normal body) cell of a person who may have a certain serious medical problem is extracted and injected inside a human egg cell that has had its nucleus removed. The egg is put in a culture dish and coaxed into dividing, creating a clump of cells called a blastocyst after four to five days. Cells that are removed from the blastocyst and cultured become embryonic stem cells. These cells could potentially be treated so they differentiate into any type of new healthy cell or even tissue and whole new organs to replace damaged cells and tissues in that person. Cloning means making copies of DNA or of a cell, virus or bacteria. It is a technique routinely used in science and medicine.
Because this technique uses the person's own DNA, the stem cells that are developed are genetically identical to (have the same DNA make-up as) all the cells in that particular person. This means the new stem cells (and tissues or organs that develop from them) shouldn't be rejected by the body. So this technique thus has great potential to solve the problem of tissue or organ rejection, which affects millions of people.

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1. It's been estimated that there are at least 400,000 frozen human embryos generated through IVF that will not be used by couples in trying to have children themselves. Almost all of these excess embryos are eventually discarded. (It normally takes many implantations of embryos to even have one successful implantation in a woman leading to pregnancy.) Against the advice of almost every medical and scientific expert, Bush has ruled that the use of these embryos, which will be discarded anyway, means the "destruction of life."

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