Monday, March 9, 2009

The Obama Stem Cell Decision

As a biotech consultant, my position on this will not be surprising: it's some of the best news I've heard in a while. It's an all-around win: for biotech companies, for keeping the cutting edge of research (and therefore economic success) in the United States, and most importantly, for sick people who will benefit from the medicines discovered.

Also not surprising is the reaction of religious conservatives, the ones pouting about "the abortion president". It's their opinions that as a Libertarian and medical student I find most offensive out of the entire American political spectrum, not least because the fumes coming out of these ideologs continue to pollute conservatism in general in the minds of rational Americans who are actually concerned with economic success instead of preaching.

The elephant that nobody wants to acknowledge is that the anti-stem cell crowd is almost entirely a religious one, and it's just one more reason the GOP has to get these otherwise conscientious Americans to understand the difference between politics and religion. Because when it counted, when it was time to stand up against government interference in corporate and state affairs, eight years ago these people were 100% ready and willing to use the long arm of the Federal government to intrude into private companies, by supporting Bush's stem cell restrictions. And these are conservatives?

If we call a spade a spade, when there's a moral debate like this in modern America, the camps quickly divide into those shouting "liberal sinner" and "moron fundamentalist" each other. This not only plays the game of reinforcing demographic and geographic stereotypes (which the mainstream media already takes care of for us) but it also misses the mark. If all I do in this post is call the anti-stem-cell crowd moron fundamentalists, I let their arguments off the hook.

On the contratry, I take their arguments seriously. So I directly question them: why is a fertilized human embryo morally the same as a child? Are we really to believe that a single cell, the same size as an amoeba, has the same intelligence and ability to suffer as a baby? The answer is a clear no. If you're reading this and you have evidence to the contrary, let's see it. On the other hand, if you tell me that the suffering of the embryo isn't what really matters anyway, but rather that your faith tells you the rules, I'm afraid we don't have to listen to you. The U.S. government doesn't have to respect Muslim "scholars" who say American energy independence is against God; we don't have to listen to the Pope when he tells us birth control is a sin. So why should we listen to someone who wants to sacrifice medical progress (and American technical competitiveness) to save a microscopic cell?

Time was when the science that our most important industries depended on was not profound enough that it sometimes forced us to re-examine our values; unfortunately that time is past. My father was a steel industry executive, and I've often compared Bush's stem cell ban to a government order to stop using molybdenum in alloys, because (hypothetically) Jews considered molybdenum an "unclean" metal. Continued economic success depends on the growth of new industries, which in turn depend heavily on scientific advances that sometimes make us look at our values to make sure we know which parts of them are most important. The world will keep changing, and any country that tries to ignore this fact will be more confused, isolated, and poor.

But I am a capitalist second, and a human being first. It's the people with Alzheimers and Parkinsons and dozens of other diseases who are most important to this debate. If you can come up with a reason that microscopic cells are more important than living people, than children and grandparents and brothers, please enlighten us - but be honest with yourself, and with us, about the values motivating you. My first and most important principle, as a medical student and a human being is to eliminate people's suffering. What's yours?

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