President Bush to Scientists and the Sick: ‘Drop Dead’

In George W Bush’s America, it’s okay to throw human embryos in the trash, but not to use them as a source of stem cells.

A political question on the minds of scientists in the United States is: How big will the Republican losses be in November?

History shows that Republicans are almost certain to lose ground. The party that holds the White House almost always loses seats in the midterm Congressional elections held in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. This year should be no different. President Bush is suffering from low approval ratings, and there is widespread discontent about the war in Iraq. Perhaps 2006 will be one of those landmark years in which control of Congress switches parties. If Democrats in the House of Representatives gain 15 seats-a number that is within reach&mdashthen Republicans will lose power there for the first time since 1994. Democrats need to gain six seats in the Senate to take control there-a less likely prospect but still possible.

The elections are particularly important to scientists because the Bush Administration has hindered scientific knowledge, usually to please backers who are fundamentalist Christians. The religious supporters of George W Bush and other Republicans are generous, organised and, thus, powerful.

President Bush opposes human embryonic stem-cell research because his Christian sponsors say clusters of cells have souls in the image of their god and deserve the same rights as other humans. The likelihood that stem-cell research might lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of devastating medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injury does not matter to them.

In July of this year, President Bush used his first veto when he struck down the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which would have removed some restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. The bill proposed to let the federal government fund research using surplus embryos generated by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures. Bush claimed he opposed such research because it involves the destruction of human life. The president’s message echoed anti-abortionists and evoked images of mad scientists killing babies for hideous experiments. On religious grounds, the Bush Administration considers spare embryos from IVF procedures as the equivalent of human beings. However, early in its existence as a blastocyst, the embryo is not a fixed individual, as shown by the fact that it can spontaneously separate into many parts. The embryos have no prospect of developing the capacities and properties of persons because they will not be implanted in a womb. These surplus clusters of cells are usually discarded as medical waste, about 400 000 per year in the United States. President Bush knows this, but he did not seek to ban IVF.

His self-righteous posturing insulted the countries that have started embryonic stem-cell programmes, such as Britain, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Canada, South Africa and France. Meanwhile, scientists in the country with the world’s biggest laboratories have their hands tied by dogma.

In Bush’s home state of Texas, Republican politicians are divided on the issue. Former state lawmaker Randy Graf says no taxes should go to embryonic stem-cell research. (He also says Creationism makes at least as much sense to him as evolution. On the question of the age of the Earth, Graf is blunt: “I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’ve got my Christian faith, and I’m very comfortable with that.”) Auto-shop manager Mike Jenkins says he is against federal funding for stem-cell research because the government will waste the money. He also opposes government support of aids and cancer research for the same reason. On the other hand, Mike Hellon, former chair of the Arizona Republican Party, said, “It is inconsistent to say it’s okay to throw embryos in the trash, but it’s not okay to harvest stem cells.”

The six Democrats seeking the seat all support federal funding of stem-cell research. Retired federal bureaucrat Francine Shacter says the opposition to stem-cell research reflects the Bush Administration’s anti-science bent: “I have lived on the outskirts of the scientific world my entire life. One of the things I deplore about this Administration is the dumbing down of science. There’s a fundamental dishonesty there that disturbs me very badly.” Jeff Latas, a pilot, says watching his son fight leukaemia has given him a firsthand look at the importance of stem-cell research: “By vetoing to satisfy a very small sector of the conservative side of the Republican Party, essentially, you’re signing a death warrant to millions of Americans.”

Perhaps the November elections will get Republicans off the back of scientists.

Hokum Locum

Now that Terri Schiavo has been allowed to die peacefully there is an opportunity to reflect on the matter free from the hysteria and religious arguments advanced as an excuse to maintain her in a vegetative state. When discussing the ethics of the situation with a local surgeon he commented that the main problem was that the feeding tube should never have been inserted in the first place. A feeding tube is surgically inserted into the stomach through a hole in the abdominal wall. Once such medical interventions have been made it is very hard to reverse them. In this case the debate appears to have been hijacked by Catholic pressure groups.

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