Tuesday, August 9, 2005


Enhancing life
From The Statesman


President Bush said he would veto any Bill for using federal money “to promote science that destroys life to save life.” In this respect, much of the country is not with him. According to a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, 53 per cent Americans favour embryonic stem cell research.

Last May, the House passed a Bill to provide funding for embryonic stem cell research, in which 50 Republicans voted with Democrats. Recently, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist broke with President Bush and the conservative wing of the Republican Party and came out in support of embryonic stem cell research.

Senator Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon by training, who might be a presidential candidate in 2008, said: “I am pro-life, I believe human life begins at conception. I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported.” Supporting him, former First Lady Nancy Reagan said, “Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to alleviate so much suffering. Surely, by working together we can harness its life-giving potential.”

Much has be said about Ronald Reagan’s intriguing legacy, his sunny disposition that made one feel the USA is a promised land; his denunciation of the Soviet Union as an evil empire and the call to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, tear down the wall; his ability to bond with the American people through his empathy and earthy oratory; his bold, unorthodox and sometime wild ideas such as Strategic Defence Initiative, and space-based protective shield, Star War in popular imagination.

But as has been said, the way we go away is no less important than as we live. It was frightening the way Reagan lived the last decade of his life, stricken with an incurable degenerative mental disease that deprived him of the most precious gift of life in his old age, remembrance of things past, his life-long accomplishments as a movie actor and a world statesman, closeness to his loved ones through small acts of daily kindness. One might say gods were unkind to Reagan; but it need not be so in the future if embryonic stem cell research is pursued.

It is difficult to know how much an Alzheimer patient suffers but we can imagine how much Mrs Reagan must have endured as she saw the wasting away of her husband with the knowledge that one day if the stem cell research continued there might be hope for one of the most dreaded human illnesses. Anytime an older person stumbles upon a word, a name, the place where he parked his car or placed his keys, we wonder if this could be the beginning of a slow end.

But in this land of eternal optimism, we look to science and medicine to improve the quality of life. We know that embryonic stem cells could be the beginning of a new life for persons suffering from fatal ailments, brain damage, heart and kidney malfunctions, diabetes, Parkinson’s, spinal chord injuries and a host of other devastating diseases.

Stem cells that are derived from aborted and discarded embryos could be directed to grow into any kind of specialised cells to repair damaged human parts and trigger a self-regenerative process in the human body. It is an example of how life feeds upon life to renew itself, which no doubt creates some ethical dilemmas.But because of his personal faith, President Bush has limited the funding of stem cell research to 78 useable lines that were available prior to 9 August, 2001, just to allow the existing research in the pipeline to continue. Those lines have dwindled to 22 only.

There is no ban, however, on private research and many companies and private universities are pursuing it. Last year, California voters approved a $3-billion bond to promote research in the state.

Turning away from research that might be the next step on the evolutionary ladder and which also holds the promise of reducing human suffering is an act of cruelty. Choosing life over potential life is practical ethics at its best.

While Americans have been embroiled in the controversy regarding embryonic stem cell research, it is amazing that no serious question has been raised in India about its moral and ethical ramifications. India’s minister of science and technology and ocean development, Kapil Sibal, told the Rajya Sabha that his ministry was working on a strategy for promoting embryonic and adult stem cell research for therapeutic applications.

I am cautiously in favour of embryonic stem cell research, but to develop a strategy without a national debate, without a national policy, could be disastrous. India should explore the ethical boundaries of embryonic stem cell research including therapeutic cloning, duplicating animals (as South Korean scientists have done cloning an Afghan puppy), and even gender selection of children by parents in India who prefer boys to girls. Research in regenerative and therapeutic medicine and technology should not be entirely left to the marketplace.


  1. Why is George W keen on suspending federal grant for stem cell research? Am I to believe that the American surgeons will go on a killing spree and abort unborn babies in – utero? Stem cell research is the new frontier of Medical Science and the progress in the field will usher in a better tomorrow.

    I was not aware that the Senate Majority leader, Senator Frish was a thoracic surgeon by training. He has the courage of conviction to air his views which are against the leader of his party. He talks sense though. By the way, I am intrigued to know how Senator Frish manages time for his Senatorial duties in addition to his medical work.

    Unfortunately in India there is no debate whatsoever on stem cell research. Although discarded embryos and aborted fetuses shall come in cheap, but few laboratories do have the necessary wherewithal to go ahead with the research, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, may be an exception. Whether we like it or not gender selection will always be there among us, Indians. Let us not forget that Dhritarashtra had a hundred sons and only one daughter.

  2. Did Dharishrashtra's 100 sons find wives or were they killed in war?

  3. I dont think ethics has anything to do with this issue in the US. It is all vote bank politics. Bill Frist wants to run for president in 2008, and so, he is turning centrist, hence, pro-stem cell. And its funny how the only republicans supporting stem cell research are those afflicted with some kind of debilitating disease, or having family members suffer from one. Like Nancy Reagan, or Arlen Specter. Ultimately, ethics has nothing to do with it. When self preservation is at stake, ethics doesnt matter.

    Ultimately the point is, politicians should stop pandering to the evangelical christian fundamentalist vote base and take decisions based on scientific evidence.