Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Moral Idiocy

You won't be surprised that sitting as I do within a clinical research institute I get e-mails regarding the injunction against federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. I'm not a lawyer (thank FSM) so I don't know whether the judge is playing with a full deck, but I am hearing about the consequences.

Our own director of grants and contracts (who is a venerable Juris Doctor) writes "I would just like to pass on the following information regarding the Stem Cell Court Order, whereby pursuant to a court order issued August 23, 2010, NIH is not accepting submissions of information about human embryonic stem cell lines for NIH review. All review of human embryonic stem cell lines under the NIH Guidelines is suspended. In addition, the February 23, 2010, proposal to revise the Guidelines is also suspended."

Researchers at Children's Hospital, George Daley and Leonard Zon write:

The injunction forbidding the use of federal funds to support embryonic stem cell research threatens the progress of our work and dashes the hopes of patients and their families facing illnesses who will someday benefit from this research. As of today, experiments and studies currently being supported with federal grant dollars will now depend upon support from private donations, and in these difficult economic times, philanthropy is not a viable funding source for research. This decision is a tragic setback not only for patients but for the whole field of stem cell research.

We hope that the injunction can be rendered moot by an act of congress that removes any ambiguity in their support of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

Now, I've always been one to dial back the enthusiasm on this, not only because effective treatments are a long way off if they ever come, but also because our development of ultra-high technology and comparably ultra-high cost medical technology has run way ahead of our ability to pay for it, which means that medical breakthroughs are mostly about benefiting the wealthiest people on earth while doing nothing for the people most in need who can't get access even to pretty cheap stuff that we already have.

More people die of cancer worldwide than from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined, most of them in poor countries where, as David Kerr and Rachel Midgley write:

Currently, a cancer diagnosis in the developing world is likely to mean a painful and distressing death. Although there is growing awareness of the magnitude of the increasing cancer problem in low-income countries, the challenges of producing comprehensive national cancer plans are substantial; not least of these is the need for financial prioritization. The estimated amount spent on health care through Britain’s National Health Service in 2008 was approximately $3,000 per capita — considerably more than that spent for health care for citizens of Kenya, about $8.30 per capita annually.

Obviously, that isn't going to pay for even the most basic cancer treatment, let alone for growing new organs in vats should stem cell research pay off. Still, as long as we're funding research into cutting edge biomedical technology, excluding use of embryonic stem cells is ethically preposterous. Thousands of embryos are destroyed every year that are overproduced in fertility clinics. I don't see any religious fanatics objecting to that. What they object to is taking cell samples from a few of those in order to advance scientific knowledge and perhaps, one day, curative technology.

To equate these nearly microscopic balls of cells with human beings is just asinine. They are created in petri dishes and they have no differentiated organs of any kind. They are indistinguishable from slime molds unless you happen to sequence their DNA. The religious right got itself into this trap of illogic by claiming that abortion is identical to killing babies, when what they really don't like is sex. There's no sex going on here but they can't afford to be inconsistent so here they are, condemning actual living children to death and disability without even trying to save all those blastocysts anyway.

But they aren't really that stupid. They are really that evil.


C. Corax said...

I've always assumed that the religious right was anti-abortion because they hate women. Not that I'm quibbling about them hating sex! It's a sort of self-loathing--thus the gay-bashing by wingnuts who are often outed as gay. Hetero wingnuts despise women.

Mona Albano said...

Stem cell treatments for complex rebuilding of the nervous system may be far off, but treatments for diabetes might be just around the corner.

Of course, this vile, woman-punishing attitude only hurts stem-cell research in the U.S. and other Western countries to which the contagion has spread. China is very gung ho on stem cells and will be taking the lead in developing and patenting new discoveries, which it can then sell to the U.S.