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Reactionary judge halts embryonic stem cell research

Published Sep 2, 2010 9:23 PM

For millions of people with Parkinson’s and other degenerative and incurable diseases, a hope for a cure relies heavily on stem cell research.

But on Aug. 23, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth issued a major ruling against embryonic stem cell research. Lamberth decided that two businesspeople engaged in stem cell research were suffering from unfair competition. James Sherley of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Theresa Deisher of AVM Biotechnology had alleged that new guidelines for embryonic stem cell research issued by the Obama administration would result in increased competition for limited federal funding, and would “injure their ability to compete successfully for National Institutes of Health (NIH) stem cell research money.” (Associated Press, Aug. 23)

Lamberth, a Reagan appointee with a long history of reactionary decisions, also ruled that the federal guidelines would hurt another plaintiff in the case, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, because they might not be able to “adopt” as many frozen embryos as they would like. There are currently around 400,000 frozen embryos stored in U.S. fertility clinics. Nightlight admitted to CBS News that they had successfully “adopted” only 250 frozen embryos since they started in 1998.

The “danger” to these plaintiffs was so great, according to Lamberth, that he ordered an immediate halt to all NIH efforts to expand funding for embryonic stem cell research. He cited an amendment to a 1996 law which forbids any research which might destroy an embryo.

The judge, in his decision, did not consider the millions of people suffering from diseases, many of them terminal, who could be helped or cured by embryonic stem cell research.

Research on stem cells, especially those from early embryos, is especially promising because stem cells offer a way to turn back the biological clock. Current drugs can do no more than slow the progress of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Stem cells may one day replace cells and rebuild tissues, perhaps even organs, helping to restore patients to the way they were before they became ill. “Adult” (nonembryonic) stem cell research, while useful, has much more limited potential according to experts.

European researchers have identified muscle stem cells, suggesting a treatment for muscular dystrophy, according to a recent report published in the journal Nature. Among other tissues that could be repaired are those of the central nervous system and spinal cord, offering hope to millions who suffer from brain and spinal cord injuries and diseases. Recently, scientists at the NIH reported remarkable success in their research with embryonic stem cells.

The response to Judge Lamberth’s outrageous decision was quick and angry. Although some researchers showed surprise and dismay, groups representing the disabled and medical communities were loud in their denunciation of this attack on our very lives. Bob Schieffer of CBS News spoke passionately as a cancer survivor in favor of embryonic stem cell research and expressed his chagrin at the latest court ruling.

The Obama administration has said it will appeal the decision, but a much quicker solution is available to the current government if they choose to utilize it. In July 2006, before the Democrats got control of Congress, a bill permitting the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support.

Even such noted conservatives as Nancy Reagan and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah supported the bill. George W. Bush vetoed that bill, but presumably, with majorities in both houses, the Democrats could pass a bill which Obama would then sign. But this scenario is by no means certain.

Scientific progress under capitalism

It is a fact that the modern scientific revolution was a part of the revolution of the capitalist class against feudalism. It is also true that in its progressive phase, capitalism paved the way for many important breakthroughs in scientific knowledge. Many progressive people are therefore sometimes puzzled and dismayed by the recent rise of reactionary, obscurantist and downright anti-scientific movements by the Christian right in the U.S. and elsewhere.

David F. Noble, a college professor from Toronto, has asserted that as capitalism progressed through the 19th and into the 20th century, science and engineering came more and more under the control of large corporations.

The goal of these corporations was, of course, to maximize their profits, but as the 20th century progressed, these corporate “scientists” acquired the additional tasks of managing and defending the capitalist class. Scientific discovery only became important when it led to profits, but even profitable inventions could be sacrificed if they endangered capitalism economically or politically. (David F. Noble, America by Design, 1977)

The current worldwide economic crisis does indeed threaten the very foundations of capitalism. Different sectors of the capitalist class are torn between their desire to make potentially huge profits from stem cell research (there have already been successful attempts to patent individual genes!) and their need to maintain political control of the capitalist state. For conservatives in the United States, this has meant an alliance with the religious right, which is vehemently opposed to embryonic stem cell research.

The attack on science is a symptom of the long-range decline of capitalism, but workers and oppressed people, including sick and disabled people, need not accept it. We should see to it that scientific progress continues, not for profit, but to meet people’s needs.