Friday, April 08, 2005

I was pleasantly slackjawed when I discovered that Matt Blunt would not support the ban on stem cell research in Missouri. Then I learned that many Republican legislators share his point of view. Whoa. What's up with this progressivism? It turns out that when legislators learned what was actually involved in--pardon the mouthful--somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT, many of them reacted with: "Oh. Is that all it is? Well, that's ... no big deal."
This is not to say, of course, that all Republican legislators think creating new stem cell lines should be allowed in Missouri. Matt Bartle (R-Lee's Summit) is sponsoring a bill to criminalize it here. (Almost four years ago, President Bush declared that no federal funds would be granted for creating new stem cell lines, but he did nothing to criminalize it.)
So what exactly is this process that has state Republicans at odds with each other? Creating a new stem cell line involves removing the nucleus from an egg and replacing it with any ordinary human cell, then activating the egg to begin dividing. From the resulting mass, cells are taken for research. So why all the fuss? Some of it arose from the unfortunate choice of terminology that scientists originally used to describe the process: embryonic stem cell research. "Embryonic" is such a hot button word and, in fact, an inaccurate one. Most medical dictionaries define an embryo as a fertilized egg that has been implanted in the womb. Since these eggs never meet a sperm and aren't implanted in the womb, they aren't embryos. Nevertheless, Bartle et. al. feel that the eggs have the potential for life. Such a protective attitude may seem odd considering how profligate God or Mother Nature--choose your term--is, even with fertilized eggs. Almost half of them are washed out in menstruation. One wag, Katha Pollitt of The Nation, even suggested that if we're truly concerned about fertilized eggs, perhaps we should have funerals for tampons, just to be on the safe side.
Bartle would be horrified at her flip attitude. During Wednesday's debate he pointed out that if senators doubt whether the process results in life, they should "err on the side of protecting human life." Chris Koster (R-Harrisonville), however, argued that "What makes us human occurs in the womb, not the petri dish." Playing on Bartle's own rhetoric, he suggested that if senators cannot verify scientifically that the cells are human life, they should err on the side of protecting people who are definitely alive and hoping for cures.
At the Wednesday St. Louis Meetup, Don Ruben, of Missouri Cures, explained the basics of stem cell research and its political consequences in our state. He was clear and informative. He gave us forms for signing up to support the fledgeling group, and I urge you to go to the website and add your name to their mushrooming group.
Ruben made a point of using either the term SCNT or else "early stage stem cell research". If there was anything about his presentation I would change, it would be those references. What a cold fish term those four letters are and the alternative is just a mouthful. So here's my question for you born again framers of language: what should we call it?
I'll have more to add tomorrow on the political ramifications of this issue.


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