Wednesday, Aug 25, 2010, 8:04 am
Weekly Pulse: Stem Cell Hell, Bad Eggs, and DIY Abortions
by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that all federally funded human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is illegal, thereby throwing the scientific community into turmoil. The judge decided that any experiments on these cells is research “in which a human embryo is to be harmed or destroyed,” and is therefore disqualified for federal funding under an obscure provision known as the Dickey Amendment. Researchers called the ruling “absolutely devastating.”
The ruling flies in the face of science and logic. True, a human embryo must be destroyed in order to create a line of stem cells. However, once the line is established, the cells will keep dividing forever. In nature, stem cells have the potential to develop into any kind of specialized cell in the body. There are no guarantees, but in theory, stem cell research could lead to treatments for anything from severe burns to heart failure to blindness.
The lineage of stem cells
The first line of human embryonic stem cells was created in 1998. In 2001, President George W. Bush banned federal funds for research on stem cells created after Aug. 9, 2001. Even Bush acknowledged using old stem cell lines wasn’t destroying embryos. In 2009, President Barack Obama loosened the rules for funding human embryonic stem cell research. Under Obama’s rules, researchers can’t use federal funds to create new hESC lines, but they can study stem cell lines of any age, not just the ones created before 2001.
According to the judge’s logic, a scientist is destroying an embryo when she tests a drug on an embryonic stem cell that is the great-great-great-granddaughter of a cell that belonged to a 5-celled embryo that was destroyed in 1998. Hundreds of scientists all over the world might be working with cells from that embryo at this very moment. According to the judge, each of them is destroying an embryo that ceased to exist 12 years ago. So, every day, they all get up, go to work and destroy the same non-existent embryo? What happens when come back from a coffee break? Do they destroy it again?
Ignoring the facts
“We strongly disagree with the judge’s ruling because, by definition, embryos and stem cells are two entirely different organisms. Today’s ruling is the case of one judge ignoring the scientific fact that research on pluripotent stem cells is not the same as research on an embryo,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) said in a strongly-worded reaction to Monday’s ruling. DeGette is a longtime champion of stem cell research, according to Scot Kersgaard of the Colorado Independent.
Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent asked officials of at the University of Iowa, a center of excellence in stem cell research, how the ruling might affect their work. The officials declined to comment, saying that they were still reviewing the implications of the injunction. The Obama administration announced that it would appeal the judge’s ruling.
What’s next? Bioethicist Arthur Caplan told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that the only way to get hESC back on a firm legal footing would be to abolish the Dickey Amendment. Dickey needs to go, but the judge’s latest appeal to Dickey is extremely weak. The notion that studying a 1-day-old cell descended from an embryo destroyed 12 years ago is harming that embryo is absurd. Of course, getting rid of Dickey would also open the door for federal funds to create new stem cell lines, which would be a boon to society in its own right.
Half a billion eggs have been recalled because they may be tainted with deadly salmonella bacteria. The eggs may have already sickened thousands of people. Democracy Now! reports that the entire batch can be traced to just two factory farms in Iowa, Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg. This is the largest egg recall in U.S. history. Critics say the mass contamination exposes deeper failures in the U.S. food system.
Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly notes that Wright County Egg’s parent firm has a rap sheet of health, safety, and labor violations stretching back two decades. However, Benen argues, the problem is deeper than one poorly inspected operation.
After the outbreak, former FDA Commissioner William Hubbard admitted in an interview that the George W. Bush White House would not let the FDA impose tougher standards on the egg industry because the administration was “very hostile to regulation.” If the Invisible Hand of the Market tries to make you breakfast, don’t eat it!
Back alley abortions are back
More women are inducing their own abortions with a drug called misoprostol, Robin Marty reports at RH Reality Check. Misoprostol, aka “Cytotec,” is usually prescribed to treat ulcers. Doctors use it in combination with the so-called “abortion pill” RU-486 to induce chemical abortions, but only under controlled conditions.
Misoprostol is a prescription drug in the U.S., but it is available over the counter in many other countries. Some women misuse misoprostol that is prescribed for other conditions, some buy it on the black market, and some have families send it from overseas. Unsupervised misoprostol abortions are risky because about 10%-15% of the time, the drug will start the process but not finish the job. If that happens the woman is at risk for bleeding, infections, and other complications.
The anti-choice movement has campaigned for decades to throw obstacles in the path of women seeking abortions. The longstanding ban on federal funding for abortion means that many poor, uninsured women are stuck paying the costs of an abortion out of pocket. Even a few hundred dollars for the procedure and the cost of transportation to the nearest abortion clinic may be beyond the reach of many women. It’s not surprising that these women are taking matters into their own hands.
Thanks to the machinations of anti-choicers and the compromises of the Obama administration, health care reform will provide little relief for women who can’t afford abortions.
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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.