Saturday, April 06, 2002

Going nuclear about stem cells

I've long had a pet theory about that particularly pernicious breed of intellectual midgets I call "antinukers". These people are reflexively against anything nuclear in all of its manifestations, particularly nuclear power. Reason need not apply.

Alright, everybody's entitled to an opinion, and my perceptions about risk may be different from yours. But what's mysterious here is that antinukers are so heavily concentrated on the left wing rather than being more evenly distributed politically. So fear obviously isn't the issue, if the rest of the spectrum loves their children too. How to account for the skew?

I contend that it is a product of the Cold War. You see, nuclear power can leverage facilities needed to produce bombs, whether it's for refining the fuel or handling the waste. So when nuclear power is plentiful, it lowers the social costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Then attacking nuclear power becomes a backhanded way of attacking nuclear weapons, to weaken the defenses of the US indirectly. And the left's sympathies for the Soviets cannot be denied.

Now we have another strange situation involving stem cells. Under the right circumstances, stem cells are capable of developing into any sort of cell in the body*. This offers potential for incredible medical breakthroughs.

So where to get them? Well, everyone has stem cells all the time, so people can donate to themselves. But there's another source - embryos.

Michael Fumento notes some curious behavior by Nature magazine that would tend to favor embryonic stem cell research over nonembryonic alternatives. I think he might be on to something.

You can't have embryonic stem cells without killing embryos. This is creepy at best - you don't have to be an Epsilon-Minus anti-abortion zealot to dislike this (has anybody read "Brave New World"?).

But to the radicals who insist that abortion "rights" are more than just the fruit of a legally indefensible antidemocratic Supreme Court decision, embryonic stem cell research offers a potential payoff that goes far beyond mere human welfare to provides an upside to abortion - women having abortions suddenly become like organ donors. (I can be a donor like that too - I'd like to donate Bill Clinton.)

Is that fair? Hmm. Arguably the motivation must be something other than the advancement of medicine. It turns out that in some cases non-embryonic stem cells offer better results (same link as above). So the pro embryonic stem cell crowd is actually working against medical advancement by politicking against potentially viable alternatives.

But surely no one would politicize something like health care, would they? Ha! Follow the link, repeated here. Then read "The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS" to see what happens when someone offers non-politically correct answers to health questions. Also, I haven't read it myself, but I've heard interesting things about "PC, MD" by Sally Satel.

The estimable Dr. Charles Murtaugh has some objections to the Michael Fumento link I have provided twice above. He also links to this.

Kindly note that the point of this post is to discuss the politicization of science and technology, not the science itself. I won't challenge Dr. Murtaugh on the science, but I am not as sanguine as he in assessing Nature's timing in publication. Could he be in denial?.

CLARIFICATION: It appears that not all stem cells have equal potential. Embryonic stem (ES) cells are less developed and thus can develop into all cell types (the buzzword is "totipotent"). However, being less developed, more can go wrong, and in fact they have been associated with cancer. Non-embryonic stem cells (NES) appear to have developed farther to the point where they have narrower possibilities, but then the problems that can occur in earlier stages of their development do not apply as they do to ES cells.

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