Jonathan Moreno is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
In a cleverly written but factually empty blog post, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council tries to justify his organization’s opposition to human embryonic stem cell research. This time he avers to the decision of the National Football League’s Peyton Manning to resort to adult stem cell treatments in Europe because, Perkins tells us, “the U.S. is giving preferential treatment to embryonic stem cell research.” This assertion is simply false, and I challenge Perkins to provide the evidence. In fact, nationally far more has been spent on adult stem cell research than embryonic.
Perkins also argues that Peyton’s decision to go to Europe to have some of his own fat cells injected into his neck “has impacted the debate” on adult stem cell research. I’m not sure what impact or debate he’s referring to. He’s absolutely right that “[i]t’s too early to tell if the treatment’s had any impact on Manning’s neck,” but he seems far more excited about the debate than whether the “treatment” actually works. At this time there is no evidence that the treatment Manning seeks is more beneficial than potentially harmful. The injection of potent cells into the body is not necessarily a benign procedure, which is why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is being so careful about reviewing these proposals, both for adult and embryonic stem cell procedures.
Perkins operates on a transparent double standard. It’s also “too early to tell” whether embryonic stem cell research will be of medical benefit, which is precisely why the work is being done, but that criterion only seems to apply when it’s consistent with Perkins’ real agenda. Intellectual honestly requires Perkins to acknowledge that he is opposed to research involving human embryos, regardless of potential benefit. That is a respectable position that shouldn¹t be painted over by sophistry. So is Manning’s decision to seek relief where he can, but that decision should be accompanied by an awareness of the risks and the lack of evidence of benefit.
Procedures like the one Manning wants should be approached as carefully controlled research studies with full informed consent and prior review by an independent ethics board. Then perhaps we will know if future patients can expect some relief, or if they are just writing a check and exposing themselves to unwarranted risks.
What is striking about debates like that over human embryonic stem cell research is the way that they continue to be fodder for cultural division. This is something new in the role of science in America, and seems to be especially prevalent in biology. I write about the “new biopolitics” in my latest book, “The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America” (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011). Esoteric bioethical and scientific questions like stem cells and cloning have become part of the political process. There is no reason to think that these issues will recede from the political debate; indeed, they have already surfaced in the current presidential election cycle.
But they also create somewhat unpredictable responses from those who would normally identify themselves as on the left or right, as worries about the impressive results or at least the symbolism of experimental biology cause understandable concern about the implications of powerful new science. There are good reasons to think about these issues in fresh new ways. But the same old predictable rhetoric doesn’t help us do that.