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Kneale: Obama in Stem Cell Straits

The inconsequential numbers won’t stop the far Right from igniting a political firefight

The almost decade-long Bush ban has dealt a blow to US med-tech companies

AP

President Obama faces a messy political fight over the federal court ruling striking down his new, looser policy letting federal grant money pay for stem cell research involving “destroyed” embryos.

Obama hands a juicy moral issue to the Republicans if he does the right thing and pushes for Congress to rewrite a 1996 law banning federal funds for embryonic research—the key factor cited in the federal court ruling yesterday. It would distract from the legislative achievements he trumpets (dubious though they are: ObamaCare and fin-reg reform).

But if Obama stands down and lets this judicial slap go unanswered, he abandons the issue to the crazies on the far Right. This would hurt the US in scientific competitiveness, hobble drugmakers in pursuing the next wave of innovation and sentence millions of patients to languish and without hope that science might save them.

Our President had promised to Change that bleak picture.

While Congress had first acted in 1996, a farther-reaching ban came after President George W. Bush took office in 2001. The almost decade-long Bush ban on stem cell research was a lamentable and patently political act, sacrificing great scientific promise to hack ideological expediency.

Worse, it was wrongheaded. Pushed by anti-abortion forces, it aimed at the wrong target—research on embryos as opposed to research on cells from actual fetuses from abortions. One scientist in the field told me that federally funded research involving aborted fetal cells continued unhindered, but grants were banned for any experiments involving embryos that had nothing to do with abortions.

The almost decade-long Bush ban has dealt a blow to US med-tech companies. Britain is a teeming center of stem cell work. In the US, university labs were forced to set up redundant, sequestered operations to ensure that no federal money seeped into the forbidden science.

And for what?

The sanctity of life at the moment of inception in the womb and all that—I know, I know. Even a supporter of pro-choice rights for women (as I am) might balk at the thought of thousands of embryos being “harvested” from women otherwise headed for abortions, so these eggs could then line laboratory petri dishes across the country for all manner of strange experiments.

But let’s put it in perspective: How many embryos are we really talking about here? We aren’t talking thousands at all: we’re talking maybe dozens.

A few years ago, I visited a stem-cell lab at University College London, where some 110 research teams were conducting ongoing projects in stem cell research. When pro-lifers staged a protest rally a few months earlier, crusaders demanded to know: Just how many embryos did researchers kill to supply those 110 teams of scientists?

Answer: Five.

Just five eggs were “destroyed,” but it was enough to supply over a hundred research projects because of cellular replication (and you thought you’d never need to know what you failed to grasp in biology class in the tenth grade).

Most of the needed embryos could come from the in-vitro leftovers of infertile women who later were able to conceive, frozen fertilized eggs that weren’t going to be used, anyway.

The inconsequential numbers won’t stop the far Right from igniting a political firefight, yet again, over the issue of stem cell research. My hope, though, is that it might embolden Bam and the pro-choice Left to push back at the anti-science Luddites. It might give pause even to moderate Republicans who prefer to avoid this moral grandstanding.

Just keeping thinking the real scale of this: Five eggs for over a hundred research teams. Just five.

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