Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies, and Stem Cells.

Ed Brayton has a post about a common lie that's being peddled by opponents of Embryonic Stem Cell (ESC) research, namely that there are supposedly 65 (or 80, or whatever number they pull out of their hat) cures that have been derived from adult stem cells, so therefore ESC research isn't needed. Ed puts the lie to that claim, pointing out this letter appearing in Science which shoots down that nonsense. I have a bad feeling though that like so many other myths, this one will continue to spread unabated. The far-right of American politics truly lives in its own little world and rarely, if ever, allows any daylight in.

But what irritates me most about claims over the superiority of adult stem cell is what a complete and total red herring it is. And Ed points out, it isn't an either/or type of issue; researchers would like to use both adult and embryonic stem cells, and the only way to know the limitations of one is to explore the potential uses for the other. Making hay over adult stem cells is purely a distraction from the main issue at hand, which is as follows: Is it somehow immoral to take microscopic blastocysts, which are destined for destruction anyway, and attempt to culture them so that the resulting cell line can be used for research? To rational people, the answer is of course not. Opponents of ESC research either find themselves in the odd position of having to oppose in vitro fertilization outright, since this is what creates all of those surplus embryos that end up being discarded, or they invoke an absurd slippery slope argument which holds that if we allow ECS research to go forward, next thing you know we'll be harvesting live babies for their organs. The sheer ridiculousness of these arguments is precisely why a red herring like adult stem cells gets dragged into the debate. Debating the actual point of contention isn't going to win them any converts, and they know it.

So in reality, it is not even relevant how much promise ESCs may or may not have, or whether some other alternative might exist. The truth is that most research ends up going nowhere, but of course there's no way to know that until you do the research. For opponents of ESCs, pointing out that there are no cures yet derived from them before the research has even been done is used as some kind of a knock-down argument against allowing the research to be done. That makes about as much sense as arguing that Columbus should have never sailed to the New World because, at the time, there was no evidence that there was anything there to be found. But putting aside the stupidity of this argument, the fact is that it wouldn't even matter if the prospects for finding cures with ECS research were slim. As long as there is no ethical problem with using ECSs, and there isn't, then there is no rationale for banning the research.