Weekly Pulse: Stem Cell Hell, Bad Eggs, and DIY Abortions


This article is published in partnership with The Media Consortium, of which RH Reality Check is a member organization.

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.

Bad eggs

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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  • crowepps

     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.

    This is exactly what happens in spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) as well, and that is why spontaneous abortions are routinely followed up with D&C abortion or suction evacuation abortions in order to be sure infection doesn’t set in.  Women who have used misoprostol illegally need only lie to the doctor and imply they are having spontaneous abortions — however, I am not sure how dangerous it will be for them to do so because I don’t have the medical knowledge to be aware of what complications can be caused when the doctor doesn’t know the drug was used.  I suppose that could have less impact on her medical care than the doctor refusing to treat her because she CHOSE to end the pregnancy and for moral reasons he will only condescend to share his medical knowledge with women who ‘know their place’.

  • kevin-rahe

    In nature, stem cells have the potential to develop into any kind of specialized cell in the body.

     

    And some people still have the gall to say that an embryo isn’t a complete human being.

     

    True, a human embryo must be destroyed in order to create a line of stem cells.

     

    These are no different than the embryos that are held as precious children by those who have them created in the course of in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures and which will – if only given the chance and with nothing further added to them – grow and develop into adults.

     

    The notion that studying a 1-day-old cell descended from an embryo destroyed 12 years ago is harming that embryo is absurd.

     

    It is remote participation in an evil act.

  • jayn

    These are no different than the embryos that are held as precious children by those who have them created in the course of in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures and which will – if only given the chance and with nothing further added to them – grow and develop into adults.

     

    So, if I were to unfreeze one of those embryos, set it on a table and leave it alone for the next nine months, I’ll come back to find a baby?

     

    Your ‘chance’ is my freaking body.  I don’t have to give it to anyone I don’t want to give it to.

  • crowepps

    It is remote participation in an evil act

     

    By that logic, it would be immoral to adopt a baby conceived during rape.

  • kevin-rahe

    By that logic, it would be immoral to adopt a baby conceived during rape.

     

    An adoptive couple does not require that an evil act take place in order to provide them with a baby, nor does a rapist intend any lasting benefits from his evil exploits.  Nowhere near the same thing as killing an embryo for its stem cells.

  • prochoiceferret

    An adoptive couple does not require that an evil act take place in order to provide them with a baby,

     

    Yes, they can perfectly well adopt a baby that wasn’t born of rape. So crowepps’s original point stands.

     

    nor does a rapist intend any lasting benefits from his evil exploits.

     

    What makes you say that? If the law prevents rape victims from getting abortions, the rapist might very well be intending to reproduce and pass on his genes. Why wouldn’t he? He’s got the state to help him out with that!

     

    Nowhere near the same thing as killing an embryo for its stem cells.

     

    Yeah, you’re right. Killing a 14-day-old embryo is nowhere near as bad a thing as a woman getting raped and pregnant.

  • kevin-rahe

    Just because you fail to understand or acknowlege the logic doesn’t mean that it isn’t correct.  crowepps’ point falls.

     

    the rapist might very well be intending to reproduce and pass on his genes.

     

    The suggestion that a rapist’s actions might be benevolent is unique.  I have to commend you on your originality, at least.

     

    Killing a 14-day-old embryo is nowhere near as bad a thing as a woman getting raped and pregnant.

     

    I intended to make no value judgment – only to say that the actions weren’t comparable.  And raping a woman wasn’t even one of them.

  • ahunt

    Passing on one’s genes is by force is “benevolent?” Since when? I can think of nothing more selfish!

  • kevin-rahe

    I suggested that a rapist does not intend good to come from his actions, and PCF argued against me on the point.  Go figure.

  • ahunt

    Forced/unwanted pregnancy is a good thing? Since when?

  • arekushieru

    The fetus intends good for the woman when it implants itself into the uterus?  Uh, no.  The fetus doesn’t intend ANYthing.

  • arekushieru

    I see you went from benefit to benevolent, though.  WAY to change the goal posts, Kevin!

  • kevin-rahe

    Benefit1: an act of kindness; 2 a: something that promotes well-being, b: useful aid

     

    Benevolent1 a:  marked by or disposed to doing good, b: organized for the purpose of doing good; 2: marked by or suggestive of goodwill

     

    Real antonyms there!  Sheesh, they even have the same root word.  If that’s all you can find to pick on me about, I must be doing pretty good! :-)

  • ahunt

    Yah Kevin…but we are still wondering how a rape with the intent of sending genes downrange is either benevolent or beneficial.

  • kevin-rahe

    we are still wondering how a rape with the intent of sending genes downrange is either benevolent or beneficial.

     

    I never argued that it was.  You need to badger PCF about that one.

  • truth

    “The question of stem cells is currently the dominant subject in the debate over biotechnology and human genetics: Should we use embryonic stem cells or adult stem cells for future medical therapies? Embryonic stem cells are taken from a developing embryo at the blastocyst stage, destroying the embryo, a developing human life. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are found in all tissues of the growing human being and, according to latest reports, also have the potential to transform themselves into practically all other cell types, or revert to being stem cells with greater reproductive capacity. Embryonic stem cells have not yet been used for even one therapy, while adult stem cells have already been successfully used in numerous patients, including for cardiac infarction (death of some of the heart tissue).”

  • squirrely-girl

    … if you don’t share the source.

     

    Either way, 

    Embryonic stem cells have not yet been used for even one therapy,

    Do you think this is perhaps because there are such stringent guidelines surrounding it here in the US? Do you think this applies equally to other countries?

  • arekushieru

    Yep, thanks for proving my point!  Useful aid doesn’t need to be anything good!

  • kevin-rahe

    There are no restrictions in this country on the use of private funds to research the use of embryonic stem cells to cure disease.  Biotechnology is a huge industry in this country.  If embryonic stem cells have any real promise, there is plenty of private money available to help learn how to exploit them.