By Mary Lou Greenberg
Revolutionary Worker #1116, August 26, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
The recent and ongoing debate around the use of human embryonic stem cells for research into possible life-saving medical breakthroughs has been truly infuriating--a combination of the most disgusting, cruel bourgeois hypocrisy with the most reactionary religious lunacy.
There’s two main things to get real about here.
One, the expressed concern of the leader of the most powerful country on earth for the "sanctity of life" and, two, the relation of this embryonic life to human life--what Bush has supposedly stayed up nights in his posh ranch house thinking about.
In his nationally televised speech, Bush solemnly talked about how the stem cell issue "lies at a difficult moral intersection juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages."
But wait a minute, does this "need to protect," save, and improve life extend to the children of Iraq, millions of whom suffer from disease and malnutrition and die needlessly because of U.S.-imposed sanctions strangling that country’s ability to provide basic services for its people? Or what about the tens of millions dead and dying of AIDS in Africa because American drug companies have refused to lower the prices of medicines that could stop this destruction of whole villages and peoples? Wouldn’t some of the budget surplus help in "saving and improving" these lives?
And what about the lives of Black and Latino youth right here at home that are stolen continually and consciously by the enforcers in blue, backed to the hilt by Bush et al.? I don’t even need to mention Shaka Sankofa and the other death row prisoners murdered coldly and calculatedly by the state, with Dubya himself killing more than any other state executioner before becoming President.
I could go on and on about the lives Bush and his class--the class that makes life-and-death decisions daily based on profit-over-all and making the world safe for U.S. capitalist/imperialist domination--obviously are not concerned about.
But what about the "life" they are so grandly--and grandstandingly--protecting?
This is the heart of the matter and even more significant for the people. For years we have had to put up with pious pronouncements by politicians and reactionary clerics about life beginning at conception. We’ve been assaulted at abortion clinics by vicious fools who shout hateful lies about fetuses being the same as babies.
Now, Bush has gone even farther than Ronald Reagan in declaring that a fertilized egg is the same as a human being. The magic moment here is evidently the point at which egg and sperm join, when fertilization occurs. From that point on it’s sacred! Never mind that these cells were joined together in a petri dish (a small glass dish) by scientists--that is all the patriarchs need to elevate these cells to the status of citizens. (Imagine what Bush could do with this in the next election!)
Now, such cells may have the potential to become human life, but a potential person is not the same as an actual person. I have said this many times: until the point of birth--when a fetus enters the world as a separate social being--it is not a person; it is part of a woman. No matter how many times the modern-day inquisitors cite the bible or any other superstitious tract--"women are not incubators, fetuses are not children and abortion is not murder."
As far as what’s at stake here for humanity, many scientists believe that stem cells, derived from human embryos, have the potential to cure a number of degenerative illnesses and injuries by replacing damaged tissues, such as nerve cells in Alzheimer’s disease and spinal cord injuries; cardiac muscle cells in heart disease; and pancreatic cells in Type-1 diabetes.
A lot of research still needs to be done to figure out how this could happen, but a former National Institute of Health Director said that "it is not unrealistic to say that [stem cell research] has the potential to revolutionize medicine."
I’ll come back to what would really revolutionize medicine shortly, but this comment indicates the potential that such research has in increasing knowledge and potentially providing a cure for a host of serious illnesses.
This important research is meeting a lot of opposition, especially from those who call themselves "pro-life." Stem cells develop shortly after a woman’s egg is fertilized by sperm, either as a result of sex or in a petri dish in a laboratory or fertility clinic. The latter method is sometimes used when a woman who wants a child has trouble getting pregnant. The clusters of cells in question are not even embryos --they are pre-embryonic blastocysts--about 200 to 250 cells. Stem cells are often taken from surplus blastocysts at fertility clinics. Most of these egg-sperm combos are frozen and then discarded after several are implanted in a woman’s uterus.
We’re talking here about microscopic-sized stem cells that develop days after fertilization. This is even before the cells have attached themselves to the woman’s uterine wall. Only if a woman decides to bring the pregnancy to term will these cells ever develop into a new human life entering the world as a separate social being.
But true to their complete denial of this correct scientific understanding of the process of pregnancy and birth--which relies totally on the woman’s biological processes and the social conditions she lives in--reactionary religious forces denounce any research on embryonic stem cells because to get the cells the blastocysts have to be killed.
Bush bent over backward--or perhaps forward, whatever--to avoid offending such religious obscurantists when he said that federal money would only go for research using existing stem cell lines--that is, cells taken from blastocysts that no longer exist--and would not go for research on any newly created stem cells. He vowed that no taxpayer money "would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos." (Many researchers and scientists say that this restriction will severely hamper research efforts by limiting the number and quality of the stem cells available.)
This decision from Bush is another example of what Bob Avakian has exposed as the "utter and complete bankruptcy of this system that has to have, as prominent representatives of its ruling class, people and forces who refuse to accept reality--who have to deny and attack some of the most fundamental truths about reality, about nature and society."
As for what revolutionizing medicine and science would really look like, the RCP Draft Programme lays it out: "Scientific research and experimentation can play a powerful role in revolutionizing production and society as a whole and in understanding the world. But under capitalism, science remains chained to the demands of a reactionary and outmoded system.…
"Proletarian revolution will place science in the service of the broad masses of people. It will radically transform the priorities of scientific research and unleash science to make new breakthroughs in areas extremely important to the future of humanity--such as uncovering new techniques for environmentally sustainable development, renewable energy sources, and the reduction of pollution in production and transportation.
"Medical research will be freed from the straightjacket of pharmaceutical profits and the demands of capitalism as a whole, and priorities will be radically reshaped to focus on health problems facing the people of the world." (Page 113)
The people of the world will dance in the streets when it happens!
One of the outraged anti-abortionists quoted in the media last week denounced the destruction of surplus cells from fertility clinics and suggested that they be "adopted" instead. I think there’s something to this. Just think about it. A petri dish would take up much less room in a small apartment than a baby crib. You could put it anywhere--on the coffee table or on the kitchen counter. (But you’d have to be careful not to mistake it for just another dirty dish.) Think about the savings on baby clothes. And no dirty diapers! True, you couldn’t see it or hear it--but who would miss that nighttime crying! As no one has suggested (so far!) forcibly implanting these cells in women, I guess it would never grow up. Whew! No more rebellious teenagers!
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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