Are the Republicans about to quash stem cell research again?

A number of years ago, I visited a friend who was doing postdoctorate work at the University of Chicago, and she took me on a tour of her lab. It was a pretty unremarkable place, really, an assortment of messy desks and lab benches and crowded rooms, and she took me into a room full of incubators, pulled out a tray, and said ‘these are stem cells.’ I looked at them under the microscope as instructed. They looked like pretty ordinary cells to me. She told me which stem cell line they were but I’ve forgotten what it was — they were just cells, teeming on a plate, growing and dividing, as cells do.

My friend was a cancer researcher, and her work involved doing something or another with livers and cancer risks that I could not even begin to explain. But it involved stem cells, and using those cell lines, her lab made some pretty important breakthroughs. Labs all over the US are culturing stem cells right this very minute, using them in a huge variety of research exploring some really important issues.

Stem cells, for all their size, have been a subject of considerable controversy. Republicans are vehemently opposed to research involving a specific kind of cell: Embryonic cells, cultured and derived from donor embryos that weren’t used in in vitro fertilization. I think that’s a great use of those cells, personally, because otherwise they would sit in storage for an indefinite period of time before being thrown out, or they’d just get tossed. Discarding perfectly useful biological material that could be used in important scientific research is wasteful, and it holds us back as a society.

But the foetus fundamentalists are convinced that embryo is sacred, and alive. Thus, people who don’t use embryos in IVF cycles should apparently pay to store them or have them ‘adopted’ by people who are willing to implant them, even though clinics typically generate multiple embryos in the interest of ensuring that they have material to work with. Thus, people who miscarry (sometimes before even knowing they are pregnant) are apparently supposed to feel guilty about it, because that was a person. But embryos aren’t people. They are clusters of cells with the potential to develop into people, which is pretty rad, because nature is rad, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

When researchers wanted to work with stem cells — incredibly flexible, potent, amazing little things that they are — foetus fundamentalists moved to block stem cell research because embryos were involved. This is a battle that has gone back and forth for years, heavily influenced by the president in power, and in recent years, we’ve benefited from a more science-based approach to science regulation, and consequently, more interest in, you know, promoting research that will benefit humanity at large.

But then came the Planned Parenthood videos, raising the spectre of evil scientists doing menacing research with dead babies. Those videos were misleading and violent and vicious and had serious consequences, one of which was a resurgence in interest in regulating tissue research on moral grounds. Patients who have abortions should be able to decide if they want to donate the ensuing tissue, just as patients getting other medical procedures that involve removing unwanted tissue should be able to donate if they want to — if looking at cancer cells in a lab will help people understand how to treat cancer, so much the better. If studying foetal development will help people understand how to ensure that people who want to get pregnant can, and can stay that way, that’s excellent. If embryonic stem cell lines (which do not come from Planned Parenthood, as the organisation doesn’t do IVF) allow people to conduct a huge range of important research, that is fantastic and a splendid thing. Out of waste comes medical advancement.

After watching Planned Parenthood repeatedly and systematically persecuted, something that will get worse as the new legislature sits this year, and after watching Republicans once again take control, my mind has turned to stem cells. So much research wouldn’t be possible without them, and I very much fear that policy shifts will once again make it impossible for people to work with stem cells. That we will back to watching other countries make leaps and bounds we can’t follow, that we will lose researchers to nations that will support their research interests and needs, that we will find ourselves once again living in a social climate where basic, fundamental science is impeded by ignorance and hatred.

I strongly suspect that we are going to see pushes to ban or severely restrict the use of embryonic stem cells in the coming year, and that makes me angry. America is supposed to be a country of innovation and exploration. It is going to regress into a country so obsessed with catering to the screams of a very small and very vocal and very powerful lobby that it misses out. The United States is facing an anti-science administration backed by an anti-science dominant culture, and it makes me worry about our place in the future of the sciences. It is absolutely ludicrous that we may be living in a country where research materials with a documented contribution to humanity that are safe and well-regarded all over the world may no longer be available, or may be severely restricted, because some people think they can impose their views about where life begins on the rest of us.

Embryonic stem cells — and foetal tissue — save lives. Clearly and demonstrably. Research that relied on these tools is widely available and I am furious that access to something with such obviously documented value should be in question.

Image: Stem Cell Week 2012, Christina Tu/Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, Flickr