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Cellular division (continued)

A number of celebrities and media figures also support federal funding. Christopher Reeve, puffing into his air-powered wheelchair, speaks out regularly. So does Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, and Mary Tyler Moore, who has diabetes. Among the news media, Morton Kondracke, of Roll Call and the Fox News Channel, has written a well-received book, Saving Milly, on his wife’s heart-rending battle with Parkinson’s. Kondracke is using his book tour and media prominence to make the case for stem-cell research. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who went to medical school and who uses a wheelchair and who thus has a more sophisticated understanding of the medical system than most people, has written in favor of federal funding. So has the New York Times’ William Safire, who heads a foundation on brain science.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t know and love someone who couldn’t be helped by stem-cell research. My almost-nine-year-old daughter, Rebecca, has achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. Now, dwarfism is not a terrible fate by any means, and in fact could even be considered within the normal range of genetic variation. But dwarfs can also suffer from related medical problems, some serious, and from social discrimination as well. If stem-cell research could have produced a safe, reliable treatment for Becky, my wife and I would have opted for it in a moment. (Further disclosure: the education Becky’s dwarfism has given us also led us to invest in a stem-cell-research company whose stock price would almost certainly rise if Bush approved federal funding.)

This personal argument was well put by Michael Kinsley in Slate last year, shortly after Clinton had approved federal funding. “Imagine being paralyzed by a spinal cord injury in your teens,” he wrote, “watching for decades as medical treatment progresses but not quite fast enough, and knowing that it could have been faster.”

IN THE face of such compelling reasons to support federal funding of stem-cell research, opponents have voiced two basic lines of argument — one moralistic, the other pragmatic.

The moralistic argument is essentially the one voiced by the Catholic Church and the religious right. For scientists to experiment on human stem cells, the pope has said, is “not morally acceptable, even when their proposed goal is good in itself.” The absolutism turns the appeals made by the likes of Christopher Reeve on their head. Indeed, in hearings on proposed research last year, members of the US Senate heard not only from Reeve, but also from Mary Jane Owen, director of the National Catholic Office of Persons with Disabilities, who is blind and mostly deaf, and who uses a wheelchair.

“Do I want to see again? Dance again? Hear like I once did? I do not want those things at the cost of any living person, and I consider live embryos to be people,” Owen testified, according to a report on

This position at least has the virtue of logical consistency, and interest groups such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the National Right to Life Committee, and the Republican National Coalition for Life are all pressuring Bush to take their side. Recently they were joined by House Republican leaders Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and J.C. Watts, who made it clear that they don’t care what their Senate counterparts think. What these opponents miss, though, is that most of us have long since learned to live with ambiguity in the great pro-choice/pro-life debate. A culture that is reasonably comfortable with first- and even second-trimester abortions is not going to be up in arms over medical research involving days-old cellular clumps — blastocysts, as they are known in scientific terminology — that would otherwise be discarded.

Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, a moderate on abortion rights, offered a fascinating insight in a recent column. The anti-choice movement, he argued, built support for its position in recent years by waging a campaign against so-called partial-birth abortion — a non-absolutist position designed to appeal to people who were in other circumstances pro-choice. By contrast, he wrote, the movement’s opposition to stem-cell research was just the sort of narrow absolutism that would turn people off. “I would find a funeral service for a blastocyst grotesque,” he wrote. “And to the extent that my pro-life friends have a political objective of moving people like me closer to their view, what they’ve accomplished by making an issue of partial birth abortion is likely to be undone by making an issue of the blastocyst.”

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Issue Date: July 12-19, 2001