The politics of human stem cell research

What would make the son of a late Republican president take to the podium of the Democratic National Convention and speak against the present GOP president, someone his father would have endorsed? Or to have his mother, a staunch Republican who frequently broke bread with the most right-wing elements of her party, get on that same bandwagon?

Answer: Stem cell research and its medical, scientific and political implications. Why is this issue so important?

First, a little Science 101. What are human embryonic stem cells? The name says it. They are just that — stems, with the ability to develop into any form of human tissue (in any animal, for that matter).

They are created after the male sperm fertilizes the female’s egg and a full stage embryonic cell, the zygote, is formed. This cell then divides by mitosis ad infinitum until the human body, with all its functions and appearance, is formed.

Those cells divide into two parts and each “daughter” cell has the potential to either remain as yet another stem cell to divide further or, through a complicated system of enzymes and neurological stimuli, the other part matures into all the body’s cells — the brain, stomach, heart, muscles, etc. Voilà! A human being is created.

Why “daughter” cells? Because all creation is female until male enzymes exert their power if the sperm passed along the Y, instead of the X, chromosome. Boy or girl, the stem story remains the same.

If scientists had all those stem cells from abortions that have the potential of making new and healthy organs, just imagine their use. When there came a need for a new organ — a heart, liver or pancreas in the case of the diabetic, for example — the stem cells that were programmed to make such an organ could be harvested, the organ created either in the lab or “in situ” (in the natural place) and a healthy organ would be formed, without transplant. The uses are endless. Why then the controversy?

Because of those religious zealots that are using their theology to insist they know for sure that life begins at conception, which fuels their violent antagonism to a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy. They influenced President George W. Bush to essentially curtail stem cell research and development as of Aug. 9, 2001. That means that only those stem cells that were harvested before that date can, with federal funding, be developed into needed human organs.

The catch is that those cells are minuscule and finite in number compared to those needed for future use and they are quite fragile. As they die off, without replacement, stem cell research for human needs is essentially over. It has been suggested, foolishly, that scientists can use adult cells, with some vague “pluripotentiality” for organ development. That’s a big word meaning the cells possess the power of developing in any one of several possible ways but the fact is they just do not have the ability to turn into any sure, safe organ.

So again, why the resistance to this life-saving process? Because, while the right wing has no qualms about bombing Iraq and killing U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians by the thousands, a woman’s right to choose is so nefarious to them that even using the aborted tissues of a first trimester termination for such an obvious good does not change the equation. All just another reason to end the nightmare we are living under with the Bush administration and vote him out of office come Nov. 2.

The author can be reached at donsloan@nyc.rr.com.