In Stem-Cell Debate, a Culture War ; Bush Is to Decide Soon Whether the US Should Fund Research in This New, and Controversial, Area of Science

By Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 6, 2001 | Go to article overview

In Stem-Cell Debate, a Culture War ; Bush Is to Decide Soon Whether the US Should Fund Research in This New, and Controversial, Area of Science


Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Sudden, intense pressure from all points of the political spectrum has made George W. Bush's upcoming decision on whether the US should fund stem-cell research one of the most difficult domestic decisions he has yet faced as president.

It is an issue suffused with emotion. Those who favor an all-out push in this new area of science believe it could help combat some of mankind's worst medical problems. Opponents emphasize that human embryos are destroyed to obtain the most promising type of stem cell - a trade-off they call tantamount to murder.

The administration may be searching for a compromise position. But avoiding controversy could be impossible, given that the stem- cell debate is increasingly a proxy for the broad science-versus- religion arguments that have long swirled about abortion and other morally charged issues.

The stem-cell battle is a case where "otherwise unfocused energies have rushed in and turned it into a referendum for the culture war," says David Murray, director of the Statistical Assessment Service, a group that analyzes public debate about scientific issues.

In the media, the stem-cell debate is often characterized as a clash of specific theologies: the religious right versus medical researchers.

Yet not all the religious opposition to stem-cell work comes from the Christian right, and not all those on the Christian right are opposed to the research.

Fervent pro-life politicians, such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, are among stem-cell research's most impassioned boosters.

Meanwhile, some - though not many - medical researchers oppose the work. And there are different methods of pursuing stem-cell research, each with its own moral implications.

The glare of public political debate tends to bleach such gray areas away. As a result, the nation may lose a chance to have a public debate about aspects of bioethics that future scientific advances will only re-raise, notes Mr. Murray.

Are embryos people? Does medical benefit for the many outweigh harm to a few? What is a person, anyway?

"To simply cast this as pro-life zealots versus the sciences is to so distort the complexities that we are facing that we will probably miss an opportunity to provide some clarity," says Murray.

At issue for President Bush is a deceptively narrow question: Should the federal government bestow grants on medical researchers working in the stem-cell research field?

Stem cells, to science, are fundamental building blocks of the body. They are raw material that, as they age, develop into more specialized bone, skin, or organ cells.

They were first isolated only in the late 1990s. They have caused great excitement in the medical research field, as many scientists hope they will be able to coax the cells to grow into whatever they want, providing a means to rejuvenate or replace ailing cells.

Stem cells can be obtained from adults. But the stem cells that most researchers consider most promising come from embryos. And in obtaining these cells, the embryo is destroyed.

Scientists argue that most of the embryos at issue are destined to be destroyed, anyway. They are the byproduct of medical fertility efforts - leftovers destined to never be implanted in a womb. …

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