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Stem-Cell Research: “Why Lines Must be Drawn”

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with an editorial from the pages of magazines such as U.S. News & World Report, Time, or Newsweek. These publications are well known for the “liberal” slant they put on most subjects they address—from matters of politics to matters of ethics. Generally, when I read an article by one of the writers who frequent the pages of such publications, I find myself shaking my head left to right in strong disagreement.

But in the August 23, 2004 issue of Time, I stumbled upon an exception. In the closing pages of the magazine, there was an essay titled “Why Lines Must be Drawn,” by Time staff writer Charles Krauthammer. I read the article while onboard an airplane, on my way home from a weekend speaking engagement in eastern Tennessee. The title itself caught my eye—if for no other reason than the fact that a Time writer would dare to suggest that there actually are times when lines must be drawn. As I read, I found myself once again shaking my head—but this time up and down instead of left to right. Allow me to explain.

On June 5, 2004, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan succumbed to Alzheimer’s, after a ten-year-long battle with the disease. A little over a month later, on Tuesday, July 27, 2004, the president’s youngest son and namesake, Ron Reagan, did two things that his Republican-president father never would have done. First, he spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Second, he advocated the use of stem-cell research using embryonic stem cells (something to which is father was opposed during his own administration). Ron Reagan “tugged at the heart strings” when he painted a picture that envisioned a Parkinson’s disease patient being cured as the result of stem-cell research. He discussed the potential of using a patient’s own skin cells—plus a donor egg—to produce neural cells that would be injected into the brain. Reagan Jr. called it a “personal biological repair kit,” and labeled it “the future of medicine,” telling those in attendance that stem-cell research could lead to “the greatest medical breakthrough in our or in any lifetime” (“Reagan Calls for…,” 2004).

Great convention speech material, that! But Ron Reagan conveniently downplayed the fact that in order for such a “great medical breakthrough” to occur, it requires the destruction of the donor egg that has become a viable, growing embryo. But that is not a problem, suggested Reagan, because, according to him, “an embryo is not a human being!

Not everyone agrees with him on that salient point, however. As a reporter for CNN.com put it:

The subject is a highly controversial one…. Stem cells typically are taken from days-old human embryos and then grown in a laboratory into lines or colonies. Because the embryos are destroyed when the cells are extracted, the process is opposed by some conservatives who link it to abortion. Reagan said there was a distinction between an embryo and a fetus” (“Reagan Calls for…,” 2004).

Enter Charles Krauthammer and Time magazine. In his article (which bore the subheading: “Stem Cells Present a Complex Moral Issue”), Krauthammer discussed some of the political shenanigans that have occurred in the stem-cell debate (a topic not under discussion here). But he then commented:

…[T]his is not an issue of reason vs. ignorance…, but of recognizing two important competing human values: the thirst for knowledge and cures on the one hand and, on the other, the respect for even embryonic human life and a well-grounded respect for the proven human capacity to misuse newly acquired powers, in this case, the power to manipulate, reshape, dissect and redesign the developing human embryo (2004, 164[8]:78, emp. added).

Krauthammer was clearly angry that a medical/ethical issue had been turned into a political issue. With biting (and appropriate) sarcasm, he referred to the “prime-time convention speech by the well-known medical expert Ron Reagan,” and then inquired as to what, exactly, the message was that Reagan was trying to get across to his audience. Krauthammer’s conclusion?

On the one side are the forces of the good, on the verge of curing such terrible afflictions as Parkinson’s, diabetes and spinal-cord injury. On the other are the forces of reaction and superstition who, slaves to a primitive religiosity, would condemn millions to suffer and die. Or as Reagan subtly put it, the choice is “between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology” (p. 78).

But Krauthammer wasn’t finished. He continued:

Compassion? There’s nothing less compassionate than to construct a political constituency of sufferers (and their loved ones) by falsely and cruelly intimating that their disease is on the very cusp of cure if only the President would stop playing politics with the issue. Why, after all, was Reagan addressing the nation on a subject of which he knows nothing? Because his famous father died of Alzheimer’s, and some (including, sadly, Nancy Reagan) have been led to believe that Alzheimer’s is curable using stem cells. This is nonsense. Cynical nonsense. Or as Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem-cell researcher at the National Institutes of Health, admitted candidly to the Washington Post, a fiction: “People need a fairy tale” (p. 78, parenthetical items in orig., emp. added).

Krauthammer is angry. Really, really angry! And he has good reason to be. As we reported in the “In the News” section of our Web site for the week of July 26-August 1, 2004 (in an article titled “Stem Cells May not be the Ultimate Cure-All”), research at the Oregon Health and Science University defies the long-held assumption that stem cells are responsible for repairing diseased tissue. Holger Willenbring and colleagues found that macrophages (white blood cells that act as phagocytes to ingest foreign particles) “derived from bone marrow stem cells, and not bone marrow stem cells themselves, are what fused with diseased liver cells, ultimately curing a genetic liver disease” (as quoted in Science Daily, 2004, p. 1). In fact, Willenbring was not sure that stem cells did anything in the cells he and his coworkers evaluated. This landmark discovery was reported in the July issue of Nature Medicine (see Willenbring, et al., 2004).

But more than that, Krauthammer is angry that so little respect is afforded the human embryo. In speaking of his own offspring, he remarked:

I think it is more important to bequeath to my son a world that retains a moral compass, a world that when unleashing the most powerful human discovery since Alamogordo—something as protean, elemental, powerful and potentially dangerous as the manipulation and re-formation of the human embryo—recognizes that lines must be drawn and fences erected (p. 78).

Krauthammer’s point—that “lines must be drawn and fences erected”—is right on target. He angrily decried the use of “embryos created purposely and wantonly for nothing but use by science.” I share his anger—as do millions of other Americans who have an innate respect for human life—from single-celled embryo to doddering elder. As those of us at Apologetics Press have repeatedly pointed out (see Human Cloning and Stem-Cell Research—Science's “Slippery Slope” [Part II]), the destruction of human embryos for this type of research is a dangerous “slippery slope” that science dare not tread—even when there seems to be good reason to do so. Why? Because the wanton destruction of human life is wrong!

But who could possibly want a “magic bullet cure” for various human ailments more than Charles Krauthammer? When he was a mere 22 years old, he sustained a spinal injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He has not walked in 32 years!

Oh, and did I mention that it was Dr. Charles Krauthammer who wrote this essay? Unlike Ron Reagan, who boldly spoke on a subject (stem-cell research) “of which he knows nothing,” Krauthammer is a well-known physician who knows exactly what he’s talking about—and who has a self-professed vested interest in finding cures for human beings, like himself, who desperately want to walk, or live, another day.

But, as Krauthammer noted—not by destroying other human beings! Or, as Dr. Krauthammer said when he ended his article, “not at any price” (p. 78). I couldn’t agree more. Premeditatedly destroying one human being, on the slim off-chance of hoping to save another, is not an option. Two wrongs never make a right. Lines must indeed be drawn!

REFERENCES

Krauthammer, Charles (2004), “Why Lines Must be Drawn,” Time, 164[8]:78, August 23.

“Reagan Calls for Increased Stem-cell Research” (2004), CNN, [On-line], URL: http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/07/27/dems.reagan/.

Science Daily (2004), “Macrophages, not Stem Cells, Correct Liver Disease by Fusion,” [On-line], URL: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/07/040708014035.htm.

Willenbring, Holger, Alexis S. Bailey, Mark Foster, Yassmine Akkari, Craig Dorrell, Susan Olson, Milton Finegold, William H. Fleming, and Markus Grompe (2004), “Myelomonocytic Cells are Sufficient for Therapeutic Cell Fusion in Liver,” Nature Medicine, 10:744-748, July.




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