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Cancer wasn’t the only thing on his mind. Weissman knew that a great number of the body‘s terrible diseases -- Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson‘s, others -- are caused by misbehaving cells and that it might be possible to remove the bad cells and replace them with normally functioning stem cells. In America, 1.3 million people have cancer; 4 million have Alzheimer’s; 1.5 million have Parkinson‘s; 17 million have diabetes. This doesn’t include those in need of a new kidney or bladder or spinal cord -- which stem cells could possibly be used to grow. That‘s a lot of lives to save.
What Irv Weissman didn’t understand at first is that his own government could politicize these stem cells and decide that potentially saving millions of lives was a bad idea. What he didn‘t understand then, but has come to understand since, is that without his rugged Montana perseverance, he might not ever get the chance to save these millions of lives.
R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who served on Bill Clinton’s bioethical council and who has been a part of this discussion since nearly the beginning, likes to say, ”The stem-cell debate is a debate about everything but what it‘s about.“ Which is to say that the stem-cell debate is not, actually, about stem cells.
Really, it is about George Bush trying to win a second-term election after not actually winning the first. It’s about the son not making the same mistakes as the father and losing the religious right. And it‘s about the religious right trying like hell to pave the way for the Supreme Court to take away a woman’s right to have an abortion.
A discussion of this requires a little more background on the five ways scientists obtain stem cells. The principal method is through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer, which we‘ll get to in detail soon. But for now we’ll concentrate on the other four. One of those ways is through parthenogenesis, the Greek word for virgin birth. In this process, an unfertilized egg is tricked into cell a division and then mined for stem cells. Another way is to take one of the existing 60 cell lines and form another cell type to create new lines. Both of these ideas are exciting, but no one really knows if or how well either will work, and so, for now, both are off the radar.
In the remaining two methods, fetal stem cells are culled from aborted fetuses and embryonic stem cells are removed from unused embryos taken from in-vitro fertilization clinics. Because of these methods, stem cells sit smack in the middle of America‘s reproductive-rights debate. In fact, some have argued, the debate over the process of culling stem cells is the best thing to happen to the religious right’s anti-abortion crusade in decades.
”Every year since Roe v. Wade thousands of women have been having abortions,“ explains Charo. ”That‘s 30 years, an entire generation of women who have experienced the ability to choose. That’s a huge demographic imperative. The evangelical right is fighting against a culture of tolerance for embryonic destruction, and they‘re losing that fight every time a woman knows she can make a choice. The conflation of cloning and stem-cell research has allowed [the religious right] to argue for the embryo in the context of a technology -- reproductive cloning -- that has a near-universal shock value.“
It’s a tricky thing to try and overturn a Supreme Court decision like Roe v. Wade. Nonetheless, for 30 years, foes have been chipping away at it. One of the main reasons it has held fast hinges on this idea: A human embryo does not have the same rights as a human being. To overturn the decision you need at least a couple of things. One is a pro-life Supreme Court (which is a whole other can of worms, but it starts with what we just got -- a pro-life Senate). The other is evidence that supports the idea that the American public now feels that embryos are people too.
For the benefit of reporters and congressmen locked in this debate, Irv Weissman does an interesting experiment. He walks up to strangers on the street and asks them to draw an embryo. ”Invariably,“ he says, ”every time, without fail, they draw a fetus with a face.“ A fetus with a face is not an embryo. An embryo is a scientific term used to describe the period of time from when a zygote is formed until the time it begins to have discernible organs. Meaning, specifically, that the word embryo was created to distinguish it from a fetus. It is nothing like the cartoons that people draw. In fact, under a microscope, an embryo is even less spectacular than stem cells.
If you want to prove to the Supreme Court that both the scientific community and the American public have changed their minds about the status of the embryo, then you need a series of precedents. These are not just legal precedents; these are psychological precedents as well. The high court would need to decide that the country‘s opinion has changed, and to do this you would need to show that in related -- but not abortion-specific -- departments the embryo is now being afforded the same protections as both fetus and adult.