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Saturday, July 17, 2004 - 09:20 AM Permanent link for Stem Cells - Position Statement
Stem Cells - Position Statement

I was supposed to debate  Cody Hatch @ PrudentPolitics on the topic of stem cell research @ Iron Blog.  However, when we submitted our opening statements to the Chairman, he decided that our positions were just too close to ensure the proper clash necessary for a debate. 

Subsequently, Cody posted his planned opening statement on his blog here.   And I must admit, we were strikingly similar in our positions - a sure sign of Genius.  

My position statement is below -

The classic Libertarian position on basically all issues is the defense of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" - a surprisingly effective, albeit somewhat trite phrase that applies to many circumstances.

There are, however, a few issues like stem cells, abortion, and certain preemptive war / aggression situations, where the Libertarian position runs into fundamental conflicts.   At these junctures, Life (for example, of the unborn), Liberty (for ex., of the mother), and the Pursuit of Happiness can not be simultaneously defended.   And consequently the debate often moves from one of axioms towards one of efficacy and cost/benefit. 

The topic of stem cell research is one of these issues.

Before diving into the details, the ever informative Wikipedia provides us with this summary of the scientific lay of the land regarding stem cells -

Stem cells are cells which are not terminally differentiated and are therefore able to produce cells of other types. Medical researchers hope they can be used to repair specific tissues or to grow organs from scratch.  There are three types of stem cells: totipotent, pluripotent, and multipotent. A single totipotent stem cell can grow into an entire organism. Pluripotent stem cells cannot grow into a whole organism, but they can become any other type of cell in the body. Multipotent stem can only become particular types of cells: e.g. blood cells, or bone cells.

Much of the controversy surrounding stem cells focuses on the specific area of embryonic cells -

Stem cells which originate from embryos are seen to have the most potential because of their totipotent properties—they are able to grow into any of the 200 cell types in the body. Embryonic stem cells can be obtained from a cloned embryo, created by fusing a denucleated egg-cell with a patient's cell. The embryo produced is allowed to grow, and stem cells are then extracted. Because they are obtained from a clone, they are genetically compatible with the patient.

So, let's summarize the conflict -

  • Stem cells have tremendous therapeutic potential for a wide variety of maladies
  • Of these, pluripotent and totipotent stem cells have the most potential
  • To date, the most reliable source of totipotent stem cells is via embryo's
  • The only source of stem cells that will withstand patient rejection is via a cloning-type technique where a 3rd party embryo has it's DNA replaced with DNA from the targetted patient

It's the last 2 points that likely raise the ire of the challenger - the idea that cells (embryo's) from a 3rd party must be destroyed (well, have their DNA replaced) in order to provide therapy for another individual.

I'll make several quick points -

  • Stem cell harvesting requires only a very small number of cells as little as 10s and no more than a 100 -
    Embryos, whether donated or specifically created, are grown in petri dishes for about a week, at which point they have divided into a microscopic, hollow ball of about 100 cells.
  • 10-100 cells doth not a human make.   At least that number of skin cells are discarded everytime you take a shower.
  • Stem cell research can be focused on discarded embryo's -
    The US cell lines were produced from embryos left over from in-vitro fertilisation procedures. The embryos were discarded after genetic screening revealed they had defects.
  • Stem cells minus a womb lack the "ignition key" for becoming a fetus
    Two well known pro-life politicians understand that “certain conditions” make a difference. According to Newsweek, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) argues that “a frozen embryo stored in a refrigerator in a clinic” isn’t the same as “a fetus developing in a mother’s womb.” Connie Mack, former Republican senator from Florida, declares, “For me, as long as that fertilized egg is not destined to be placed in a uterus, it cannot become life.” In other words, for Hatch and Mack, location in a petri dish makes a lot of difference.

As for Bush's limits on stem cell research - I'm going to introduce an issue which, in subsequent debate, may become a red herring.   Thomas Sowell famously noted that all government spending involves the imposition of one community's values upon another's.    In the case of my opponent, the use of his taxes to fund stem cell research which may incent the creation of aborted embryo's is likely to cause some consternation.   Under this pretext, Bush's policy - that federal funds not be directed towards new stem lines - seems reasonable.   Government money should necessarily carry more strings than regular money and anything that incents researchers to seek their funds from the private sector is fine by this Libertarian    ;-)

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