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Stem the Tide of Research? Fuhgeddaboutit | The Nation

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Stem the Tide of Research? Fuhgeddaboutit

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So, a bunch of really old guys were sitting around the Senate cloakroom shooting the breeze when one of them brought up the latest fountain-of-youth gimmick. "With those stem cells, they can grow you a new heart, a liver, stop Parkinson's and Alzheimer's--whatever you need," one geezer said.

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Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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Mesmerized by visions of unlimited terms in the Senate and being lionized well into their second century of life, the senators were abuzz with an excitement that rivaled the rush of sending kids to war or burying campaign finance reform. Until one of the Republican senators broke the mood by pointing out that the most promising stem cells were extracted from embryos that, although so tiny your naked eye couldn't see them, might look suspiciously like life unborn.

That was a showstopper, as you can imagine, since defense of life after conception but before birth is the heartbeat of the conservative revolution. It's what turns otherwise sensible, hard-working Democrats into Republican voters. It sure isn't tax breaks for the super-rich. So they were in what you might call a moral quandary.

OK, so the conversation probably never took place, but it didn't have to. President Bush solved the problem for those senior citizens in the cloakroom in what's been cheered as a Solomon-like gesture of splitting the fetus.

Bush told the nation that he'd called upon the wisest men in the land--no, not the priests or even the pollsters but the bioethicists--for a solution. The great thing about bioethicists is that moral confusion is their stock in trade, so you can hear whatever you want to hear.

What Bush heard enabled him to fudge the life-begins-at-conception issue. He did this by freezing federal funding for research to cell lines from already discarded embryos, thereby embracing a distinction without a difference.

Since all of this concerns cells already outside of the woman, this neatly avoids the stigma of a pro-choice deal that, God forbid, could be seen as helpful to a woman who finds herself pregnant.

Armed with the confidence that stem cell research did nothing to empower women, the President finally got up the nerve to speak to the nation on television, and most of the Christian right leaders who have found God in the GOP raved on cue. As they reminded their troops, it's important to rally around the President because there are more important issues up the road than stem cell research, like Supreme Court appointments. Bush is their man, and if he needs a little wriggle room for life in a petri dish, only nonpartisan purists like the Catholic bishops would still condemn him.

How much wriggle room? Enough so that anti-abortion voters won't realize they've been sold out until Bush is legitimately reelected. Of course, as the bishops warn, once the eggs are out of the bag and thawed, there'll be no stopping those scientists. Remember that fellow Galileo?

Scientists don't take to the leash, particularly not when they get all heated up with discoveries that might unlock the mysteries of life, make them rich and win a Nobel Prize. When is the last time a scientist on the edge of epic discovery let a little thing like the Scripture get in the way?

No way you'll get those fertilized eggs out of the lab and back into the freezer. The war was already lost when scientists were allowed to create life in the lab, making a mockery of the religious right's struggle to hold the line at the missionary position.

Scientists are a lusty, insatiable breed. Soon they'll be telling us those existing cell lines aren't enough, more eggs need to be harvested and, heavens to Betsy, hooked up with sperm from donor banks. Or maybe worse, they'll do that cloning stuff where you don't even need a male matched with a female. There goes that whole homophobic argument that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, or Eve and Eve, in order to propagate.

But what about the hard-line anti-abortion types still out there at press conferences putting politicians' feet to the fire? No problem, those folks get old too, and for them, growing brain cells when they most need them is going to be the only compelling cause. You think they're going to lose sleep over some nothing blastocyst swimming around in a petri dish that isn't even mentioned in the Old or New Testament?

Listen hard and you can already hear some boozy congressman bellowing to a biotech industry lobbyist: "You show me you can grow me a liver and you'll get all the fertilized eggs you want; how do you like them, frozen or thawed?"

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