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What's behind Bush's obsession?
The right-wing crusade against stem cell research

February 17, 2006 | Page 4

REBEKAH WARD explains what's behind the right-wing attack on stem-cell research.

DURING HIS State of the Union address, George W. Bush took the opportunity to plug an old favorite: opposition to stem cell research.

He stressed that scientific institutions should "recognize the matchless value of every life" and urged a ban on a range of "egregious abuses of medical research," including "human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling or patenting human embryos."

Bush ended with the clincher, "Human life is a gift from our Creator--and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale."

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THE PROBLEMS with these statements are huge and numerous--from both political and scientific standpoints.

First of all, stem cell research has nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of animal-human hybrids or the creation and raising to adulthood of human clones. These were put into the speech in order to raise a Dr. Moreau-like specter for people who have been fed right-wing lies about stem cell research.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can maintain themselves over long periods of time in the laboratory.

Cells in our eye and cells in our pancreas, for example, are both specialized. They contain the same genetic information, but they are programmed to serve different functions in our body. Once cells become specialized in our bodies, they cannot suddenly change into a heart muscle cell or a liver cell, for example.

Scientists don't know exactly what gives the cells in an embryo the ability to become so many different types of cells (hence the need for research). But the general property of stem cell flexibility depends on their surroundings, the chemicals around them as they grow, and their genes--the stretches of DNA that encode some function.

Stem cells can be used in cell-based therapies because they are so flexible that they potentially can act as replacements for tissues that are not working properly anymore. This is why the research being done on stem cells has the potential to find cures for diseases ranging from Parkinson's disease (where neurons stop producing the right chemicals for your brain) to diabetes (where pancreatic cells stop making the right amount of chemicals to deal with sugar intake).

Human stem cells come from two main sources: an inner layer of cells from a 4- or 5-day-old fertilized mammalian egg, called a blastocyst, and cells from certain tissues from adults.

The human blastocysts come from excess fertilized eggs created at in-vitro fertilization clinics, with the informed consent of people needing medical help for infertility. Human stem cells do not come from eggs fertilized inside a woman's body.

There is no raging debate about the use of adult stem cells, although the purpose for studying them is identical. But the information researchers can obtain from these two different types of stem cells is not identical.

Embryonic stem cells can become any type of cell in the body, while adult stem cells can only become a limited range of cell types. For example, our bone marrow has stem cells, but these become one of the different cells in our blood) Embryonic stem cells are easily obtained, and can grow and multiply their numbers in the lab--while adult stem cells are rare, and good methods for growing them have not been found.

Neither adult nor embryonic stem cells are about cloning. Cloning is the word used to describe the copying of biological material. The term can apply to everything from copying and maintaining a gene in bacteria, to creating Dolly, the cloned sheep.

Dolly is an example of reproductive cloning. She was created by taking the nucleus (the part of the cell that contains centralized and packaged DNA) out of a Finn Dorset Sheep mammary gland cell and putting it into a Scottish Blackface Sheep egg without a nucleus. Then the egg was placed inside a surrogate mother and grown into the cloned (Finn Dorset) sheep.

It took 276 trials to get the lamb Dolly--99 percent of all reproductive cloning fails.

Both stem cells and cloning use eggs, but embryonic stem cells are unique in their DNA, while clones have the nuclear DNA of another organism. To become a clone, stem cells would have to have their nuclear DNA removed and replaced with donor DNA.

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THE EMBRYONIC stem cell debate is much more fundamental then the relative advantages of these two types of stem cells or its relationship to cloning.

Stem cells have been sold by opponents of research as potential human babies. It is important to note because they are created in a test tube, a woman would have to consent to physically house and nurture a blastocyst for around nine months for this potential to be fulfilled.

Equating a blastocyst with a baby has obvious implications in the political fight for women's control over their own bodies and reproductive rights. Yet Bush's final word on stem cells is that "human life is a gift from our Creator--and that gift should never be discarded...."

The hypocrisy of this statement should be clear. Prioritizing human health, welfare and rights is not Washington's agenda. How can Bush claim to cherish life when he's asking Congress for billions more dollars for imperialist wars? How can members of Congress, Republicans or Democrats alike, claim to value life when they are slashing federal funding of health care for the elderly and the poor?

If proposed stem-cell legislation passes, it will enshrine the sanctity of a blastocyst and lay the basis for further reproductive disenfranchisement of women. This is a continuation of a long battle to roll back the right to choose, starting with denying poor women access to abortion with the Hyde Amendment and ranging to the recent Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the confirmations of two anti-choice Supreme Court justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

Because of the lack of opposition the administration has faced, it wants to continue its offensive with this new proposal. When legislation banning stem cells comes to Congress, we will probably have yet another demonstration of the Democrats' resounding lack of resistance.

But defeat of reproductive rights isn't a forgone conclusion--if a movement, similar in independence and determination to the one that won Roe v. Wade in the first place, takes up the fight.

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