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Miracles, Stem Cells, and Christopher Reeve

Christopher Reeve will be at the University of Rhode Island on Tuesday to talk about stem cell research. At this point, however, what he's pushing for is the acceleration of a recovery that has begun already, by work, willpower, and (although Reeve doesn't seem to believe it) the grace of God.

Look, I feel for Christopher Reeve, and I feel for Nancy Reagan, but I object strongly to the cloning necessary for embryonic stem cell research. And, frankly, those who support it are not being honest.

In his remarks, Reeve will urge politicians to follow California, which passed controversial legislation, signed into law last week, that gives scientists broad freedom in using stem cells. With the potential to cure a multitude of diseases and disorders (and to serve as a sort of fountain of youth for all), stem cells could be instrumental in Reeve's further recovery -- and a godsend to others like him.

Use of the cells is controversial because one type -- the embryonic -- is derived from human eggs, which, if fertilized, could develop into people. The Catholic Church and other religious groups have joined some lawmakers in opposing use of embryonic stem cells. President Bush has permitted limited research, but has forbidden federal funding of the far-reaching experimentation that is needed before stem-cell therapy can become reality.

In the first paragraph, I find it to be on the line between funny and offensive that G. Wayne Miller (the author of this Providence Journal article) would tie this new technology to a "fountain of youth." How better to gain political support than to promise the world eternal youth? The second paragraph is a bit more in line with proper discussion, but even more dishonest. At first, embryonic stem cell research is "one type," but by the end of the paragraph, a ban on federal funding of that one type is preventing the entire branch of therapy. It is further presumptuous to claim that federal money is the only way — even an obligatory way — to fund the research.

The use of "if fertilized" with regard to human egg stem cells is a pillar of another disingenuous argument:

[Mr. Reeve said,] "Senator Brownback and others on the religious right -- social conservatives, as well -- have said that they believe that an egg, unfertilized, just by itself, is already an individual. Meaning, as an individual, it is entitled to the same rights and protections as you and me. I find that very hard to understand."

Although embryonic stem cells can be produced from fertilized eggs, stem cells also can be grown from unfertilized eggs into which DNA from another individual has been implanted (a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapuetic cloning). If Brownback were to be consistent, Reeve said, the unfertilized eggs a woman sheds through menstruation should be mourned. "To take it to an absurd extraction here, in terms of logic, women should be holding funerals for their eggs once a month. And that's, of course, ludicrous."

To make this argument is dishonest enough, but to do so in the context of accusing others of inconsistency is worse. What is fertilization if not implanting "DNA from another individual"? Merriam-Webster defines it as "the process of union of two gametes whereby the somatic chromosome number is restored and the development of a new individual is initiated." Cloning fits this description (although with reasonable debate over the "gamete" part — dictionaries are hardly cutting edge scientifically). Mr. Reeve and other supporters of embryonic stem cell research are saying that, somehow, an egg that has been "fertilized" in a specific way and for a purpose that helps them is no different from an unfertilized egg. Perhaps Mr. Reeve finds the opposition "difficult to understand" because nobody is really arguing that "an egg, unfertilized, just by itself, is already an individual."

The last argument to which I object has to do with politics. Reeve introduces it by saying:

"I have no problem with people who have a consistent moral point of view, a deeply held and consistent position on the issue," Reeve said. "However, I think that many politicians don't -- they're not coming from a place of absolute morality, but more from political calculation."

Who honestly believes that politicians have any basis on which to claim "absolute morality"? And isn't it inherent in our system that politicians should listen to their constituents (i.e., make political calculations)? Certainly, our entire system of government is built around the idea that it should be in our leaders' interest to act according to the will of a majority of their people, but we want morality in our representatives to prevail when the people want something that is beyond the pale. The entire system is built to maximize the instances in which we get this balance right — for the nation, not just for the benefit of individuals.

In the end, for proponents of embryonic stem cell research, it is often a matter of their own personal desires. As Reeve puts it, "I think back on the last four years, and how little the [federal] government has done, and it's really pretty painful to contemplate." He wants to "sweep aside" politics, but our political system is there to ensure that the desires — even perfectly understandable or laudable desires — of a few do not unduly threaten the rights of many.

Reeve also wants to "sweep aside" economics, "urging insurance companies to pay for exercise therapy for other paralyzed people who lack his financial resources." This is where his greatest moral case could be made, and where he should concentrate his efforts: petitioning companies and raising money for research. Not demanding the taxpayers' money and pushing any scientific option that holds some promise, trying to cover up moral issues by rephrasing in terms of science.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 09:55 AM EST