Sen. John Kerry, man of science?

Posted: Jun 22, 2004 12:00 AM
These days, politicians of all stripes do not so much adopt issues as strike poses: In Denver on Monday, John Kerry struck his. Sen. Kerry criticized President Bush for allowing "ideology" to trump science, and called for stem-cell research "to tear down every wall today that keeps us from finding the cures of tomorrow."

Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, responded only to the underlying pose, with Bush's campaign theme du jour: "Only John Kerry would declare the country to be in scientific decline on a day when the country's first privately funded space trip is successfully completed."

But even in this day, when image and archetype replace substance, it is dangerous to let an actual argument go unanswered: How can we look Reagan's grieving widow in the face and fail to support stem cell research?

In a recent article in the Weekly Standard, Wesley J. Smith points out one inconvenient fact: Alzheimer's is one of the least likely diseases to be cured by any kind of stem cell research. "People need a fairy tale," Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss, explaining why scientists have allowed society to believe wrongly that stem cells are likely to effectively treat Alzheimer's disease.

That's not to say that stem cell research isn't enormously promising. It's not likely to cure Alzheimer's, but there are dozens of other therapeutic uses: Parkinson's, diabetes, Lou Gehrig's disease. Nobody I know is opposed to stem cell research. That's not the issue, let's face it.

The question at hand is this: Are we taxpayers going to pay scientists to create human beings in order to dismember them for research? That is what this debate is about. The John Kerrys of the world are trying to convince us that progress requires that we swallow our misgivings. Is it true? Must we consume our own young to cure disease? Will we traffic in human flesh in order to achieve our dreams? Or do we have enough faith and optimism to believe that there are other ways to make scientific progress against diseases?

Certain bioresearch firms, unable to attract private capital, are beating the drums for taxpayer financing of their firms. "Stem-cell companies bleed cash," as a USA Today reporter put it in 2001, and frankly it is companies who are using stem cells from human embryos that are finding it hard to produce the kind of results that attract investors.

Michael Fumento, author of "BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World" (Encounter Books; read review), lists the "wonders of progress" from stem cell research:

"Just last February, two different human-autopsy studies demonstrated that stem cells transfused into the marrow work their way into the brain, where they can repair neurons and other vital cells. Other studies have shown that when injected into animals with severed spinal cords, stem cells rush to the injury site, effecting repairs." At a conference in late 2002, French researchers reported they had performed 69 stem-cell transplants with an 85 percent disease-free survival rate. "Stem cells have been injected into damaged hearts and become functional muscle," notes Fumento.

All of these treatments share one thing in common, according to Fumento: Not a single one used stem cells from human embryos. Stem cells can be harvested from adults, from the placentas of newborns, in myriad ways. We do not need to eat our own young in order to pursue the wonders of stem cells.

Ronald Reagan would have been glad, but not surprised, to know that. He never accepted the idea that human progress and human decency are fundamentally in conflict. He knew in his bones that truth and goodness and abundance are not enemies: They go hand-in-hand. That's the deepest of our American faiths.