By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
To this end, Bush has stacked a bevy of anti-choice judges in the lower courts and appointed an anti-choice attorney general in John Ashcroft. And while you could argue that this is just party politics -- and it is -- behind the obvious partisan court appointments there are covert anti-choice precedents being set.
Last October, the Bush administration changed the section of the Health and Human Services charter that regulates research done on human subjects. This legislation exists so that if you volunteer for a sleep study, you don’t end up dead. The old charter granted legal protection to adults and fetuses. The new version protects embryos as well.
For a long time, women‘s groups have been lobbying the government to provide health care for pregnant women. To this end, the Bush administration extended the reach of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover both embryos and fetuses but, oddly, not pregnant women. So, while pregnant women still can be without health care, the groups of cells dividing in their uteruses now have more health coverage than their uninsured mothers.
Bush has also lobbied hard for a ban on partial-birth abortions, which technically eliminates the already rare late-term abortions but in effect criminalizes the procedure. Bush also reinstated Ronald Reagan‘s gag rule that bars federally funded family planners from discussing abortion as an option or from providing abortion services.
”The point of these things,“ says Allison Herwitt, director of government relations for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League ”is to weave embryonic rights into law. These are not individual occurrences. These are a well-crafted strategy to end legal abortions. And one of the next steps in that strategy is to outlaw stem-cell research -- not because the research itself is in question, but because banning the way that research is conducted can help them to achieve their true goal.“
Under a microscope, stem cells aren’t much to look at. They grow in clusters and even when magnified 10 times are individually smaller than pinheads. They look like slimy, slightly metallic grapes. Under a microscope, it would be easy to mistake them for something utterly inconsequential, like tadpole snot.
”It‘s almost funny,“ says Larry Goldstein, ”that something so dull-looking could cause such a fuss.“
Goldstein, another scientist in the middle of this stem-cell storm, is a plain-spoken, energetic man in his late 40s. He has gray hair and a long, handsome face. As an investigator and professor of cellularmolecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego, he oversees a lab that employs 23 people and thousands of mice. Both mice and men are working toward answers to the same set of questions: how biological complexes (proteins, lipids and organelles) move through the neurons and brain cells.
He wants to know these things because he thinks the answers will go a long way toward providing a cure for Alzheimer’s, Huntington‘s chorea and Lou Gehrig’s disease. To get the answers, he needs stem cells.
Stem cells are the body‘s rawest materials. From them, developing embryos build all other cells that eventually form the body. Unlike specialized cells that can only form one thing -- a liver, say, or a nose -- stem cells can change into any other kind of cell.
Currently, much of Goldstein’s work involves non-human-derived stem cells, which are not technically a point of contention. ”But five years from now, if I want to actually cure these diseases, I‘ll need access to human embryonic stem cells, and I want to make sure they’re available.“
The issue of stem-cell availability is at the root of a war of terminology. Both sides are using big words, and some of those words have frightening connotations. Ignorance is part of the problem. Because of the complexity involved, the media often choose brevity over accuracy, and the combatants fuel the war by co-opting partially a defined words to their own ends.
Cloning is one of the biggest bombs in this terminology war. ”You have to understand something,“ Weissman says. ”Cloning has as many meanings to a scientist as ice to an Eskimo or love to Oprah Winfrey.“ On the other hand, cloning, to a man like Leon Kass, means only one thing: producing carbon-copy human beings.
Leon Kass is yet another controversial man at the center of this battle. He is a University of Chicago bioethicist who believes that life begins at conception and who now heads up President Bush‘s Council on Bioethics. Time magazine called him the president’s ”ethics cop.“ The council is charged with advising Congress and the administration on stem cells. A few years ago Kass wrote a now-famous article for The New Republic titled ”Preventing a Brave New World or Why We Should Ban Human Cloning Now.“ He explained the aforementioned procedure called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the principal means of obtaining stem cells, and disingenuously equated that process with the cloning of people. Here are a few lines taken from Kass‘ article:
What is cloning? Cloning, or asexual reproduction, is the production of individuals who are genetically identical to an already existing individual. The procedure’s name is fancy -- ”somatic cell nuclear transfer“ -- but its concept is simple. Take a mature but unfertilized egg; remove or deactivate its nucleus; introduce a nucleus obtained from a specialized (somatic) cell of an adult organism. Once the egg begins to divide, transfer the little embryo to a woman‘s uterus to initiate a pregnancy. Since almost all the hereditary material of a cell is contained within its nucleus, the re-nucleated egg and the individual into which it develops are genetically identical to the organism that was the source of the transferred nucleus.