Wednesday, May 25, 2005

May 24, 2005

Stems & Seeds

Some days I feel like I am living in the middle of the 19th century. While the human race faces daunting challenges of the present and near future, we waste time arguing matters that should by now only be discussed in history class.

Today’s back-to-the-future issue is fetal stem cell research. No one in his or her right mind would consider a zygote a human being. But then, whenever you try to mix religious beliefs with science and public policy, you end up with out-of-mind experiences. And that’s just what we have here.

The religious right – backed by the President and rightwing members of Congress – believe that using a zygote to create and then harvest fetal stem cells is tantamount to murder.

(I am purposely using the medical term “zygote” rather than “fertilized human egg” or “embryo,” not because I fear use of those terms would undercut my argument but because it is more appropriate.)

The kind of research being done now in South Korea does not use fertilized human eggs. Instead they use an egg that has had its original DNA removed and replaced with DNA harvested from a different person. That’s right, Dr. Dobson, no sperm was involved. Therefore calling the South Korean-creations “fertilized eggs” or even “embryos” is not entirely accurate. But they are, unarguably, zygotes.

Sorry for having to waste youR time with such obvious details, but whenever dealing with religious zealots you have to nail every detail down for them. It’s not that they are stupid, just confused. Terribly confused. Dangerously confused. Arrogantly confused.

Anyway, the President and his fundamentalist supporters say that using zygotes to harvest potentially life-saving fetal stem cells is wrong.

("Destroying life to save life is wrong" - President Bush says. Not to muddy the waters but, didn't he justify destroying lives in Iraq on the grounds it would save lives from WMD? Executing criminals saves lives too, according to Bush. Hmmmm... But destroying a zygote to save full-term humans is wrong. I'm confused.)

Things get even more confusing when you try to balance this anti-fetal stem cell position with the religious right's silence on fertility clinics. These self-proclaimed "prolifers" are also self-proclaimed “pro-family” folks who apparently have absolutely no problem with fertility clinics. This very strange since the stock-in-trade of fertility clinics is to create zygotes that really ARE fertilized human eggs, embryos. No doubt about it. Those little buggers are the real deal. And these clinics create them by the millions, because the failure rate of in vitro fertilization is so high they create many times more embryos than they will ever need.

So, what do these for-profit IVF clinics they do with embryos they don’t use? Well, first they thrust these "little“people” into vats of liquid nitrogen and freeze the holy bajeebers out of them. They leave them there shivering in this frozen hell, wearing nothing by their genes, until someone decides they don’t need them any longer. Then they thaw them out, and “take them for a ride,” – a one-way ride.

“The approaches of the 175 clinics that did dispose of extra embryos varied in the extreme. Some handed the tiny ball of cells over to the couple or individual to take home, whereas some incinerated them as biological waste. Of the clinics that incinerated the embryos, four required the presence of the couple while twenty-five clinics forbade it. Seven clinics even said a prayer during disposal in a quasi-funeral, according to Arthur Caplan, a co-author of the study from the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.” (More)

So, let’s review. Using fetal stem cell research from artificially created zygotes is a sin -- abortion by any other name. But destroying honest-to-god embryos for profit by fertility clinics is not an issue with the religious right.

The reason IVF is not a political issue is, of course, money. Fertility clinics are insanely profitable. Fetal stem cells may or may not become a profitable business some day, but right now no real fetal stem cell business lobby is writing check on The Hill. Fertility clinics and the companies that own them are. And we are talking big money.

"On average, a patient gets pregnant only one out of three times, so many patients try IVF repeatedly. Each attempt costs anywhere from $4,000 to $18,000 for doctors' fees, plus thousands more for drugs to stimulate the woman's ovaries to produce eggs. Because patients are willing to invest that kind of money in treatments that didn't exist a few years ago - and because about ten percent of American couples have trouble conceiving - infertility is an estimated $2 billion industry annually in the United States. Pharmaceutical companies are investing millions in fertility-related drugs. Clinic management corporations traded on Wall Street are in the business of making a profit on infertility treatment for investors. Brokers are charging fees to help couples find egg donors and surrogate mothers. And the number of U.S. clinics offering IVF has been racing upward since the mid-1980s, to about 330 today." (More)

Ah, so there you have it. The real reason fertility clinics that really DO “kill” embryos by the millions are okay, but that it’s wrong to use artificially created zygotes for fetal stem cell research.

Memo to Democrats: The next opportunity you have to attach a rider to a bill attach one that says consistency requires that if fetal stem cell research is restricted because “its wrong to destroy life,” then fertility clinics should not be allowed to create any embryos that will later be destroyed. Such a law would affectively put fertility clinics out of business, of course. But such a law would be the only logical application of fundamentalists’ own argument. Either that argument is valid in all cases, or it’s not. Which is it? Force them to confront the internal inconsistencies in their own argument. They hate that, because there are so many.

When Bush Policies Hit Home
I have a first-hand tale to tell you today that illustrates an earlier point I made: that Bush’s economic policies have been nothing more or less than a direct transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

I know a single mother, now in her early 50’s. She has a son who was born severely brain-damaged. While he is now in his early 20’s he has the mental abilities of an infant, or less. She could have institutionalized him, at great cost to Medicare and Medicaid. Instead she chose to raise and care for him at home. Medicare paid her a monthly stipend that was less than half what it would have cost the government to care for her son in a facility.

All went well form two decades. Then George W. Bush and his merry band of “let-them-eat-cakers slashed Medicaid. Last month Medicaid looped $600 a month off her son's care allowance. She had already been barely able to make ends meet, and losing that $600-a-month was the final straw. She fell behind in her bills, the phone company cut off her service and now she is being evicted from her home because she can no longer afford the Bay Area's high rents. I have no idea where this poor woman and her son will end up now.

I believe an air-tight case can be made that this woman’s $600 a month is now ending up in some wealthy person’s family trust in the form of Bush tax relief. If you want to prove me wrong, go ahead. I’d love to hear it. So would she.

Just In: Protestors Clog DC Streets for Second Week
I firmly believe that only that kind of headline can now turn the Red Tide. So, will some group that has national standing and membership (hello please begin organizing that kind of protest right now. It will be the only hope the day Bush sends his Supreme Court nominees to The Hill?

Please. Please - get on with it. Once the Bushites get that ball rolling it will be too late to organize protests large enough and sustained enough to make a difference. So let's start now.

I live in California, but I will happily buy a plane ticket and join such protests, and stay for a long as it takes to put an end to this madness. And I am certain there are millions like me around the country just waiting for someone with the organization, money and skill give us a way to participate again in our democracy. (BTW - The Christian Right knows how to do this, which is why they keep winning.)

So, here's a clue -- cutsey TV commercials alone are not going to win this war. It’s time to hit the street again.

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