All Stem Cells Go to Heaven?

By: Derek Dyson

In March of 2009, as promised, President Obama lifted an 8-year ban on embryonic stem cell research that had previously been imposed by the Bush Administration. This ban stopped labs from developing new cell lines for research and effectively put American scientists a decade behind the rest of the world. This is because they were now forced to derive stem cells from other sources (skin cells for instance), which proved to be an arduous and inefficient method to accomplish a task that had already been done effectively (through the use of embryos) for many years. In August of 2010 a federal court halted Obama’s executive order, citing the “Dickey-Wicker” rule that Federal Funds cannot be used in any research that will lead to the destruction of human embryonic cells. Finally, last July the case was dismissed and federal grant money was again made available to American Colleges and research institutions.

When President Obama originally signed the Executive Order in 2009 he also ordered the White House Office of Science and Technology to “Restore scientific integrity to government decision making”.  Why exactly do we need to “restore” the scientific integrity of a nation that put a man on the moon and developed the Internet?  It’s no secret that scientific literacy in America is on the decline.  After all, more people in this country believe in ghosts than believe in (or understand) the concept of evolution.  In a society that is so dependent on science and technology, how (or why) are so many Americans completely out of touch with even the most basic of scientific principles? Why do so many Americans with a rudimentary understanding of something like climate change, adamantly disagree with an international community of experts on the subject?  I would certainly say that education is a big part of it, but I think more at fault is cultural bias.  A persons Philosophy (political and religious) is a likely determinant of their stance on many scientific issues. The problem with this is that science, more importantly the scientific method, is inherently unbiased and fully dependent on verifiable evidence. It’s dependent on the facts. When a person denies these facts because it interferes with their personal worldview, there is a logical disconnect between their beliefs and reality that needs to be addressed.  Religious conservatives and their stance on stem cell research is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Embryonic stem cells are basically builder cells found in human embryos at very early stages in development. The possibilities for these cells are limitless at this point, as many scientists predict major advancements in the cure of human diseases and other human insufficiencies as a direct response from the research in this field. Although close to 60% of Americans believe that this research is vital, many on the political and religious right have made attempts to stop advancements in the field altogether. This is because they believe the destruction of a human embryo is tantamount to murdering a human being.  In their minds, a human embryo is a life and presumably, among other things, contains a “soul”. On its outset this may seem like a valid and meaningful argument from their prospective.  As it turns out, it is anything but.

A majority of the people who oppose embryonic stem cell research assume that a human embryo (this is a female egg at the point when a sperm cell penetrates the wall of the egg) is the full equivalent of an actual human being, solely because it has the necessary genetic makeup to “potentially” become a living, breathing person.  This outlook shows a complete lack of knowledge on the subject of human development and an obvious lack of critical thinking. If the potential to become a human is the determining factor, their argument has no validity. Take for instance a fertilized egg (an embryo) sitting in a Petri dish at a fertilization clinic. If this fertilized egg sits in a freezer for years waiting to be used, is it a human that whole time?  Now lets say that one of those embryos (or more likely a whole slew of them) is injected into the uterus of a prospective mother with fertility issues.  If any of those embryos fail to implant into the uterus of the host female, then those embryos have absolutely no potential to become a human being. They will simply be flushed down the toilet (literally). To take this one step further, unless an embryo implants into the uterus of a fertile and healthy female and then extends onto a journey that will entail a myriad of other decisive factors leading to child birth, then that embryo will never actually become a fully developed human being.  If you are concerned with the lives of these embryos, then you should be outraged at how many of them are being flushed at fertility clinics on daily basis. Transversely, the current statistics concerning fertility and modern medicine should also outrage you to the point of taking political action.

A study done by the Presidential council on biomedical ethics in 2004 puts this whole issue into perspective. They found that of all eggs fertilized by sexual intercourse, only 49% will actually implant into the uterus of the female host. This means that half of all human embryos (potential humans or souls) are naturally aborted within the first month of fertilization. Of those that do implant into the uterus, only 67% will actually give rise to a human being, so out of 100 fertilized eggs only 49 will implant and of those 49 only 33 will result in a birth.  If a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a human being, then nearly 70% of all humans are murdered while in their mother’s womb. Ironically, if you believe that these embryos are “lives”, then this would make God the single most successful abortionist in human history. Especially when considering the thousands of years prior to modern medical advancements that have curbed these numbers. With this in mind, one would assume that The Right would be just as outraged at the vast number of naturally “destroyed” embryos as they are with the ones lost to stem cell research and to things like Plan B and medical abortions. One would assume that they would also spend millions of dollars setting up interest groups and lobbying congress to fund research on increasing fertility rates. As we can tell by their actions, Conservatives are not actually concerned with the large number of lost embryos or the potential humans they pretend to represent. What they are concerned with is a political stance.  One that is an outright attack on not only the advancement of science and reason, but also on human sexuality and the reproductive rights of women among other things.

Another way to look at the flawed logic of a stem cell research opponent, is to discuss the problems faced at a biological level if one believes that a human embryo is equivalent to a human being and therefore (for the religious) has a soul. Let’s take for instance the occurrence of biological twins. When twins are produced in a mother’s womb, a single fertilized egg is present (one soul). After fertilization, this single embryo can split into two genetically identical embryos. If the original fertilized egg contained the soul of that potential human being and then that embryo was to split into two separate embryos, which twin would receive the soul and which would go without? Most believers would arbitrarily answer “well god would give them both their own soul” presumably ending the argument with the infusion of divine intervention, but the complications do not stop there. Let’s now look at the occurrence of human-human chimeras. This is when two separate embryos are present in the womb (un-identical twins) that eventually fuse together to make a single embryo, containing the genetic makeup of two un-identical embryos. This leads to a human being that has two separate blood types or cells that contain XX chromosomes and XY chromosomes (many would recognize these people as hermaphrodites). Under the their system of logic, they would be forced to admit that this single person would be in possession of 2 souls (if only we were all so lucky). This may seem silly, but it is an accurate example of how simple logic cannot co-exist with an irrational belief system.

The issue of stem cell research is but one example of how the Evangelical movement in America has used its vast resources and political influence to adversely affect the lives of other Americans, ad hoc. With a constant and well-funded war on science (paraphrasing Chris Mooney) they have proven that their strongest assets are their vast numbers, enforced ignorance and corporate alliances. They effectively duped the American public into believing that stem cell research was un-ethical and subsequently set the field of research back almost a decade in the process.  They consistently push a religious conservative viewpoint into public policy and even attempt to do so in our public schools. State by state they attempt to combat the biological fact of natural selection and Darwinian evolution, by pushing unsubstantiated ideas through school boards and into our science classrooms.  They consistently attempt to stifle women’s reproductive rights by pushing an issue that, as I pointed out earlier, completely overlooks the almost identical “problem” of biological infertility.  By adding global climate change, the Israel/Palestine conflict and the AIDS epidemic in Africa to the list, it is easy to see that Conservatives, religious and political alike, are making decisions that adversely effect this world as a whole. With that said, we as educated Americans must take a stand. A stand against religion in political discourse, against corporate greed and inequality, and against any and all anti-science rhetoric at a governmental level.  As cliche as it sounds, our future and the future of our children literally depend on it.

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