Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kathleen Parker's Stupid Stem Cell Argument

Note I'm not stating that Kathleen Parker's stupid, nor am I saying she believes what she's saying - her editorial appears to be stenography of a memo from one of possibly many pro-life groups. But her argument is stupid.

Let's start with a similar argument - avoiding arguing the morality of the death penalty by instead arguing that it's not cost-effective as compared to life imprisonment. The idea here is that you could convince death penalty proponents that it's a bad idea, not because you risk killing an innocent person, for such issues as racial disparity, or because of skepticism that the state should have that type of power over a citizen's life, but because alternatives (such as life without parole) are cheaper. What if they then demonstrate a mechanism to make it more cost-effective? You're sent reeling back to the arguments you actually believe, but you've given up a lot of credibility by making them the backups to a failed argument that you, yourself, never found convincing.

Parker opens with a distortion of the status quo - that somehow, in ending the absurd Bush policy on funding for embryonic stem cell research, Obama is "ignoring... amazing strides in alternative stem cell research." Her argument reflects her willingness to come across as a scientific ignoramus, and maybe that's also the reality. But the fact is, researchers aren't lining up to get funding for their grants, or to launch new projects based upon embryonic stem cells, because they're unethical or aren't aware of other sources of stem cells. They're doing so for valid, scientific reasons, and with full awareness of the ethical issues. Parker can yammer all she wants about how "Science and ethics finally fell in love" while "Obama seems to have fallen asleep during the kiss", but she only demonstrates her ignorance, dishonesty, or quite probably both.

This type of argument reflects the worst of "conservatives" like Parker - it demonstrats abject contempt for her audience, whom she apparently regards as scientifically ignorant rubes, while smearing the ethics and social responsibility of thousands of scientists who want nothing more than to cure presently untreatable diseases and to save lives. Parker truly believes they are intentionally pursuing research that has no scientific merit, because they get their jollies destroying embryos?

But this is where her argument gets truly stupid:
If people "know" anything, it is that embryonic stem cells can cure diseases and that all stem cells come from fertility clinic embryos that will be discarded anyway. Neither belief is entirely true.

In fact, every single one of the successes in treating patients with stem cells thus far - for spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, for example - have involved adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells, not embryonic stem cells.
Parker first pretends that embryonic stem cell research isn't in its infancy, and that miracle cures should somehow develop overnight or embryonic stem cells have no medical or scientific value. She second conveniently forgets that Bush's policies have held back research into the medical application of embryonic stem cells while allowing other forms of stem cell research and treatment to proceed. And she exaggerates the successes of research based upon other stem cell lines, to suggest that they're living up to the potential that many scientists perceive in treatments based upon embryonic stem cells. It's great that other types of stem cell are available, and that certain diseases can be treated based upon those other forms of stem cell. But, all of Parker's prevarication and exaggeration aside, they're not presently a substitute for embryonic stem cells.

Parker cites as authority a blog post by Bernadine Healy, one-time head of the NIH under George H.W. Bush, without mention of the fact that Healy engages in fear-mongering tactics that betray her ignorance of the subject matter. Healy suggested that embryonic stem cell treatments will cause cancer, citing a single case that involved repeated injection of fetal stem cells at a Moscow clinic in a manner that is both medically and scientificaly dubious.

Parker carries on for several paragraphs about how "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPSs) may ultimately prove as useful and flexible as embryonic stem cells, both in research and medical treatment. How quickly Parker forgets her prior argument, that embryonic stem cells have no medical value and the "real" progress is being made with other types of stem cell - if that were the case, after all, there would be no need to develop something potentially as useful as embryonic stem cells, and doing so would be vastly more foolish than working with stem cells from non-embryonic sources. As anybody with modest knowledge of science is aware, its absurd to suggest that something that carries scientific potential will always pan out - a lot of science that shows potential never lives up to its potential, or it takes years or decades for the potential to become reality.

Truth be told (and you're unlikely to get it from Parker), organizations performing stem cell research are proceeding on both fronts - IPSs and embryonic stem cells. If it turns out that embryonic stem cells are no better than IPSs, the research will continue based upon IPSs. The big question is, "What if they're not." And that's where Parker's construct fails. She's set up a house of cards that falls apart the moment a significant medical breakthrough emerges based upon embryonic stem cells. Even to her most ardent followers, all of her equivocation about how the only "real" progress arises from other sources is revealed for the anti-scientific, counter-factual nonsense that it is.

Meanwhile, Michael Gerson writes an editorial of his usual quality, suggesting that it's tokenism for Obama to have a pro-Choice Catholic as his Secretary of Health and Human Services. That she serves as "religious cover" for the pro-choice policies that she has... supported throughout her career.
It also smacks of religious humiliation - like asking a rabbi to serve the pork roast or an atheist to bless the meal.
Standing up for your beliefs is "humiliating"? Okay... So what, then, of appointing Catholics to the Supreme Court, knowing that they would vote to uphold the death penalty despite the teachings of their faith? Catholics who won't even promise to reverse Roe v Wade? Samuel Alito and John Roberts, for example. Religious cover for G.W.? A form of constant public humiliation for those poor men? I guess the contest continues.

I guess writing this sort of column is a lot easier than answering difficult questions - such as, why is Obama's policy any less ethical than Bush's? Or why it's more ethical to treat the nation's hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos as medical waste or to let them perish of freezer burn than to allow their parents to donate them for use in medical research? Which gives their life more meaning?

Note to Fred Hiatt: There are people who are smart, informed, honest and articulate who write about these issues from the pro-life standpoint. Ever thing about hiring one of them?


  1. Kathleen Parker said something inflammatory and idiotic and you read it? You will never, never get those minutes of your life back.

  2. In my defense, at least it wasn't Krauthammer.