Current policy on stem cells has no good defense

August 16, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- Laura Bush could not have expected to end the argument over stem cell research with her tepid proclamation: "We don't even know that stem cell research will provide cures for anything -- much less that (cures) are very close."

Do you see that next hill? We're not going to climb it because there may be nothing worthwhile on the other side.

That's not how Americans approach life or the world, of course. We climb the hill. So what Ms. Bush is really doing is making a persuasive case for upending her husband's restrictive policies, which have severely limited research on therapeutic cloning in this country.

After all, the Wright Brothers couldn't have known that their contraption would shrink the globe, allowing wide-ranging travel that has transformed whole cultures. They didn't even know the darn thing would fly. But they believed it would. Powered by their own relentless optimism, they finally managed to keep their weird craft aloft for 12 seconds. In so doing, they ushered in the age of human flight.

Dr. Jonas Salk could not have known his concoction of weakened polio viruses would protect against the deadly disease. But he certainly believed it would. And millions of Americans dared to believe with him. Many parents were worried by the prospect of intentionally infecting their children with a lessened strain of a hideous virus. But faced with an epidemic, they made the leap. And they ended up protecting their children from the scourge.

President John F. Kennedy could not have known that the United States would put men on the moon when he dreamed of it in 1961, ratcheting up the space race with the Soviet Union. Mr. Kennedy died before his dream was achieved, but the U.S. put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969.

Scientific and technological research always involves a leap into the unknown. And, since the Middle Ages, science has had to cope with not just uncertainty but also the forces of resistance, tradition and religion. The Catholic Church threatened Galileo with imprisonment because he dared follow the path of Copernicus in declaring that the Earth revolved around the sun -- and not the other way around. The church had declared Galileo's finding in conflict with Scripture.

The opponents of broader, federally-funded stem cell research don't represent anything like a majority of Americans -- or even a majority of believers. They are the minority at the end of the spectrum, the absolutists who believe life begins the minute sperm fertilizes egg.

Nancy Reagan, the widow of the man who made conservative Christians a force in modern politics, has called on President Bush to change his position. Fifty-eight senators have joined her. But Mr. Bush still kowtows to the extremists. The president has limited research that could -- of course, no one knows for sure, but many scientists are quite optimistic -- lead to cures for Parkinson's disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis and even some cancers. Some of those cures could be decades away. But we can't get there until we get started.

I've never understood a set of religious principles that attach so much importance to unfeeling, unseeing blastocysts and so little to actual living, suffering human beings -- children with diabetes, or middle-aged adults enduring the body's breakdown through Parkinson's, or adolescents condemned to a wheelchair because of an accident. And I certainly don't understand a 21st-century superpower that devotes billions to building smart bombs to destroy life efficiently but refuses to fund research that could save or enhance the lives of millions.

No wonder Ms. Bush didn't have anything more persuasive to say about her husband's position on stem cell research. It is a ludicrous policy for which there is no enlightened defense.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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