Does it really take one life to enhance another?

At a time when recent reports have detailed considerable concern and “chatter” about the possibility of terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush was at his Texas ranch brooding on a matter of special concern. On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush issued a directive based on his deliberations. He announced a ban on using federal funds to develop new stem cell cultures or to conduct any research done with stem cell lines developed after that date. He called this a “fundamental moral line.”

I conversed with a colleague, who is firmly in the anti-abortion camp, and found we were in total agreement. To say it was all right to use some stem cells and not others made no sense as a moral judgment and was a political call. We both thought Bush was wrong. My colleague believed all stem cells were the result of taking a life and should be prohibited; I believed stem cell research, with appropriate controls, is necessary to preserve and enhance life.

As with the faulty use of information that did not prevent the Sept. 11 attacks and led us into the Iraq war, Bush’s decision was again based on faulty background information regarding the number of stem cell lines available for research and the usefulness of those lines for human therapy.

California and New Jersey have moved forward with their own more liberal definitions of allowable stem cell research. They might also provide significant state funding to fill the void created by the federal funding ban. As expected, private biotechnology firms are moving into these states to take advantage of their legislative certainty. If we do not, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s desires for progress in bioscience is at risk.

DFLers introduced bills in the State House and the State Senate to explicitly allow and fund stem cell research in Minnesota. (I was chief author in the House; Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, and Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, were chief authors in the Senate.) The House bill was never heard and the Senate bill passed through the committee on a partisan vote (DFLers for, Republicans against).

The moral (or as it has become, political) question is: Does stem cell research take one life to enhance another?

The embryos used for this research, aside from being only questionably “living” in a legal sense, are, in all cases, bound for destruction with or without the research. These embryos are left over from in vitro fertilization – a process that fertilizes a number of eggs to produce embryos for implantation and destroys the extras. Therefore, not one embryo used for stem cell research would otherwise have become a child. Furthermore, what the research’s opponents often try to downplay is that successful developments in embryonic stem cell research might save and improve lives. One hundred and twenty-eight million Americans suffer from chronic, degenerative and often fatal diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes that could be treated or prevented as a result of embryonic stem cell research. These are lives staunch “pro-lifers” discount.

If an embryo’s hypothetical potential for life is, in some minds, enough to halt this research, why is the real potential to save lives from chronic illness not enough to justify it?

Republicans in Minnesota offer one final criticism of embryonic stem cell research: that it will be conducted without public scrutiny. This blatantly false argument is incredible on the lips of its proponents. It is House Republicans who have stifled legislative discussion on this issue. Rep. Linda Boudreau, R-Faribault, chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, has consistently refused to hear the two stem cell bills in her committee.

In place of a substantive policy discussion, conservative opponents have preferred to intimidate and threaten the University with criminal penalties. They claim, as Rep. Tim Wilkin, R-Eagan, said, “There is no compromise on embryonic stem cell research; it is either conducted or it’s not.” House Republicans unanimously rejected an amendment requesting that the Department of Health and Human Services “consider” drafting legislation related to regulation of in vitro fertilization. This amendment was based on the proposal of Bush’s own committee on assisted reproductive technology. The stem cell connection? It limited scientific research on human embryos to no more than 10 to 14 days after fertilization – stem cells are isolated at five days.

Strangely, the same Republicans, regarding gay marriage, cried treason over “activist” judges “usurp(ing) the power and function of the Legislature.” They demanded a policy discussion take place. When it comes to embryonic stem cell research, however, these supposed champions of public discourse are happy to, as Wilkin said upon withdrawing his anti-stem cell bill, “concentrate on enforcing the existing law.”

Could disagreeing with Republicans be activism? Is there something about this issue that makes it ineligible for public discussion while leaving gay marriage to the courts is, according to Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, “unconscionable”? Rather, it seems Republicans in Minnesota this session, whether they are defense-of-marriage-populists or moral-high-ground-defenders-of-life, are a faction willing to do whatever is necessary to push their social agenda.

Andrew Goodman-Bacon is an intern and Macalester College economics student.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, welcomes comments at [email protected]