Tuesday, October 25, 2005

How Many Hoops Must a Reasearcher Jump Through....

October 25, 2005

Stem cell research has gotten one step closer to dodging the bullet of popular opinion thanks to American researchers at a biotech firm and the University of Wisconsin. Nature reported last Sunday that the two teams have discovered a way to sidestep the religious right’s complaints about stem cells taken from aborted fetuses by implementing the same process used to do very early genetic testing on embryos created in fertility clinics. The technique is used to remove a single cell from an eight-cell embryo without destroying its developmental potential, and the individual cell can then be cultured into a line of stem cells with no babies dead by implication. Until this research came to light, no one knew whether blastomeres could provide viable specimens or not; it was common practice to wait to begin retrieving stem cells until the initial cell had doubled about nine times.

On the one hand, pharmaceutical companies are hesitant to invest the gargantuan sums of money necessary to make stem cell therapy a viable treatment in the midst of such controversy. In the single most heavily regulated area of medical research, this discovery is great news. The availability of Christian-friendly stem cell lines that are of higher quality than the few pitiful leftovers Bush declared acceptable in 2001 means such research is much more likely to receive the funding needed to launch this promising new technology. On the flip side, though, these researchers have been forced to forego more than four years of valuable research on the technology itself to avoid the torches and pitchforks of the religious right.

The Byzantine route taken to reach this point has been a massive waste of time forced by politics and superstition; the technique is unlikely to yield medically useful results. The goal of stem cell therapy is to culture organs and other tissues which match the DNA of the patients who need them. With a genetically identical replacement, doctors could completely eliminate the risk of rejection. Unfortunately, the stem cells gathered using this new method will match only the people who grow from the embryos used to generate them. This means that if I wanted to use this therapy, I’m about 23 years too late to start. The goal of this research is not to advance the therapeutic value of stem cells; instead, this is a measure purely to provide a qualm-free supply of stem cells with which to experiment.

Interestingly, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has taken a different route in an attempt to avoid the wrath of the Minions of Falwell. Rather than looking for a way to retrieve the cells without interfering with the developmental cycle, MIT researchers simply engineered the ability to grow an umbilical cord out of the zygote they intended to use for research purposes. The cells they remove can then be repaired and used as research materials. The logic goes that they’re not killing a human because the specimen providing the cells is incapable of coming to term anyway. When I read this, I had to laugh. Can you imagine any self-respecting Bible thumper being satisfied with this method? “First we damage it, then we take what we want and fix that. The rest we throw away, and it’s okay because we stopped it from surviving in the first place.” HA! Not even I buy that one, and I’m rooting for their side in the first place. The controversy surrounds the potential of a collection of cells to become a human being, and MIT researchers are still consciously and intentionally destroying that. Nice try, guys!

Completely aside from the suffering of millions of Americans with ailments which could be treated with stem cell therapies, America’s position as world leader in medical research is completely shot. South Korea has been advancing by leaps and bounds, recently announcing plans to dump $30 billion into the creation of a national stem cell bank. The Koreans have successfully cloned an Afghan Hound (named Snuppy, from “Seoul National University puppy”) and were the first in the world to successfully create exactly the genetically matched stem cells American scientists have only now jumped enough hurdles to work on. The catch is that the Koreans did so by cloning the patient and collecting the stem cells when the blastocyst had reached the size of about 150 cells, destroying the specimen in the process.

Stem cells can be used to treat everything from Alzheimer’s to heart failure. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have even succeeded in using them to create immune system cells that fight cancer. Those howling about the ethical quandary involved in the technique necessary to take advantage of these fantastic therapies have put themselves in the philosophically indefensible position of arguing for the rights of a clump of cells with merely the potential to become human. An embryo reaches the 200-cell blastocyst stage at about 5 days, before it even implants itself in the uterine wall, and it has no brain, no sensory apparatus, and nothing even resembling what we generally recognize as the traits of a human being. If these right-to-lifers are so gung ho about “potential” lives, why don’t they consider it morally wrong that there are heterosexual couples who aren’t having sex right this very instant? By this reasoning, it’s downright shameful that there is even one single woman on Earth walking around not pregnant. Now there’s a reductio ad absurdum for you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Losing Miers' Religion

October 18, 2005

Miers is turning into a one-trick pony for the right, and that trick is the death of Roe v. Wade. There’s little question that she’s staunchly anti-abortion; when she was the head of the Texas State Bar, she spearheaded an effort attempting to get the American Bar Association to reconsider its stance in favor of the right to choose. Though not calling for the outright reversal of the policy, she vigorously petitioned the ABA to submit the matter to a vote of its membership. She also bought a $150 ticket to an anti-abortion benefit dinner in 1989. Does that establish her as a right wing zealot? No, but Leonard Leo, White House adviser on Supreme Court nominations, drew attention to the campaign and fundraiser as reasons conservatives should trust the President’s judgment in selecting his nominee. Karl Rove has even pointed out that she’s from a very conservative church in which the overwhelming majority is pro-life.

In fact, this is a pretty obvious case of the Neo-Conservatives trying to have their cake and eat it too. For weeks, the Bush regime ranted and raved about how a nominee’s religious faith should be completely excluded from the public debate on his or her merits. They spent most of the lead up to the Senate vote defending John Roberts’ Catholicism as irrelevant to his qualifications (which were admittedly impeccable) and portraying those who had the temerity to suggest he might rule on issues of justice with a dogmatically skewed conscience as prejudiced blowhards seeking only to destroy a nominee picked by a political enemy. Now, however, the White House assures the religious right that Miers will make the right decisions because she’s an evangelical Christian, born-again and raised in the Texas heartland. I’d call it a stunning display of self-contradiction if I hadn’t already gotten used to the doublethink spewing forth regularly from the Neo-Cons’ propaganda machine.

But let us not forget that Bush said in June of 2002 that he would select only judges who “understand that our rights were derived from god,” directly stating his intention to violate the Article VI prohibition against religious tests for public office. Even under the originalist interpretation of jurisprudents like Scalia, this is blatantly unconstitutional—unless you want to go so far as to make the claim that the founding fathers meant there couldn’t be any test restricting one from office on the basis of which denomination of Christian one was. And frankly, that’s probably true; remember, the Constitution was ratified in a time when “civilization” and “Christendom” were synonymous.

What worries me is that Miers’ religion, as the hot button topic for this particular candidate, will overshadow the substantially more important and infinitely more relevant issues of her views on Congress’ ability to levy environmental protection laws under the Commerce Clause, the extent of local governments’ power to redistribute private property to big business under the Takings Clause, and just how far we can stretch the Equal Protection Clause when it comes to handling U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism.

It’s also suspicious as hell (but very politic) when James Dobson, influential religious leader to the Bible Belt right, has a private meeting with Karl Rove to discuss her merits and won’t talk about it later other than to say he likes her on the basis of, as he said on his radio show, “what I know—that maybe I shouldn’t know.” In fact, there’s talk amongst Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, peeved at Rove’s decision to go to the press instead of the politicians, of actually summoning Dobson before the panel to disclose what he knows. Of course, when controversy exploded around his cryptic remarks, Dobson immediately began disclaiming the mystery, contending that he was merely told she was a conservative, evangelical strict constructionist. This is like saying he was reassured that she only has one head. Why not put that on the table in the first place, Jimmy?

No one can object to softball statements like Bush’s vanilla rhetoric that “[p]art of Harriet Miers’ life is her religion.” When it’s preceded with the statement “People are interested to know why I picked Harriet Miers,” however, I begin to get a little leery. As someone who was raised in a stoutly Southern Baptist home, I can read the signals as clearly as any evangelical, and I tell you that Bush is promising an anti-abortion Justice. Senator Leahy said of the constant harping, “We don’t confirm Justices of the Supreme Court with a wink and a nod. A litmus test is no less a litmus test by using whispers and signals.” Even organizations on the Christian right are beginning to get peeved. Concerned Women for America, a group advocating the application of “biblical principles” to public policy, called Bush’s continuous harping on Miers’ religion to garner support “patronizing and hypocritical.”

I’m still not convinced we’ve been given anything other than a fall guy (if you’ll pardon the misapplication of a sexed colloquialism). Roberts was controversial but qualified, religious but well-reasoned, and friendly to the administration without being an out-and-out toady. Miers has his failings without his strengths, and the administration knows it. From a regime that has been so deft at manipulating the opinions of the public and controlling the rank-and-file of its own party, this sort of bumbling treatment seems more and more like a nomination intended to fail. The question is what’s next?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Bush Regime Nominates Stealth Candidate

October 11, 2005

“Harriet who?” With these words, my professor opened class last Monday morning, echoing the thoughts of all America. Of course, the answer is “Harriet Miers, counsel to the Bushies for the last decade and well-established crony of the administration.” Although admired widely for her precision and attention to detail, she was criticized by one former White House staffer for being unable to “separate the forest from the trees.” She, like Roberts, has done a substantial amount of legal work for the Republicans. Unlike Roberts, Miers has done nearly all of her work in the private sphere. You know what that means? No records.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are records somewhere. Just not where the American public will ever get to see them. She was drafted for the Bush White House immediately in January of 2001 and she’s been a part of the administration ever since, getting a promotion to Deputy Chief of Staff in 2003 and taking over Alberto Gonzales’ position as White House Counsel when he became Attorney General in February. That, in combination with a single term on the Dallas City Council, is the totality of her public service work. Before going to work for the White House, she worked as the chair of the Texas Lottery Commission during – you guessed it – Bush’s gubernatorial stint from 1995 to 2000, providing Governor Bush with private legal counsel all the while. From 1972 until she moved to Washington to join the White House team, she also worked in large law firms. Go figure.

So we’ll never see records from, well, anything she’s ever done. Neither of the Dallas firms which employed her is going to be releasing records of her work there, and those records would likely be pretty much useless anyway. As for her role as counsel to George W. Bush for the last decade, the White House is screaming executive privilege and claiming such documents would be a “distraction.” That’s an appalling assertion, unless Bush means that some primary sources might be a distraction from the media frenzy.

On the up side, Miers seems dedicated to civil liberties and individual rights. When she was president of the state bar of Texas, she wrote, "The same liberties that ensure a free society make the innocent vulnerable to those who prevent rights and privileges and commit senseless and cruel acts.… Those precious liberties include free speech, freedom to assemble ... access to public places, the right to bear arms and freedom from constant surveillance…. We are not willing to sacrifice these rights because of the acts of maniacs." Though she wrote these words a decade before 9/11, they make my libertarian heart sing with joy in light of a security alert system that hasn’t dropped below “Elevated” in the three and a half years since its creation. The question is whether she has stuck by those principles or fallen prey to the scare tactics with which this administration has so successfully cowed the rest of the nation.

But there’s the small matter of some comments she made to a gay and lesbian alliance in Dallas to throw doubt on how thoroughgoing her convictions on civil liberties really are. Though it was a bold move to even talk to the group when she was running for city council in 1989, she merely told them what they wanted to hear on a survey, and then in an interview she hedged her way around tough civil rights questions by citing “personal religious beliefs.” If she’s bringing her religious beliefs to bear on her position as a member of the city council, what’s she going to do with a position on the Supreme Court? Dedication to freedom of speech and the right to own a gun are very different from dedication to freedom to choose who you marry.

There’s a possibility, though, that I thus far haven’t seen considered anywhere. Bush may have picked an unpopular candidate intentionally to throw her to the sharks. Her utter lack of serious experience in public service, the recent revelations of Bush’s blatant cronyism, and a total absence of public records make Miers a hard pill to swallow. Both the Democrats, who are sure to be incensed by such opacity when they just finished fuming about the Bush regime’s refusal to release a substantial portion of Roberts’ records, and the Republicans, who wanted someone more radical to tip the balance of a court they perceive to be right back where it started, are already grumbling. If Miers sinks, Bush’s next attempt will almost assuredly get through, no matter where he or she might stand ideologically. If she swims, well, great! Then the Neo-Conservatives have got a puppet on the court too.

Long story short? Miers looks like a Republican shill, but we’ll have to wait and see. On the basis of her professional credentials alone, completely independent of her jurisprudential ideology, I’m disinclined to trust her with a position on the highest court in the land.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Ignorant by Design

October 4, 2005

Last week, the latest salvo in the culture war was fired – into a federal court in Harrisburg, PA. In a case that’s being called Scopes II, 11 outraged parents are suing the Dover Area School District for violating the separation of church and state by requiring instruction in intelligent design (ID) as a valid theory of life on Earth. Under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” the board has attempted to introduce into the high school science curriculum an idea that has no backing in the scientific community and has been discredited for nearly 150 years.

In the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court determined that requiring evolution be taught along side “creation science” was unconstitutional on its face; since ID is clearly only a new name for the same theory, I’m rather confused as to why the latest case has even gone to an actual trial. Sure, the ID movement has eliminated some of the more absurd (and, incidentally, now disproven) claims from its stance, such as the postulate that the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary was caused by a huge flood or that the earth is only a few thousand years old, but at its heart this is still creationism.

For all the protestations to the contrary, there is no question that ID is being backed exclusively by the religious right. The law firm representing the Dover school district says its mission is to supply “legal representation without charge to defend and protect Christians and their religious beliefs in the public square.” Former schoolboard member William Buckingham, who started this push to teach the baseless rhetoric of creationism in biology courses, said point blank in a public meeting, “2,000 years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” In the midst of such commentary, it’s impossible to believe that those pushing this idea are doing so out of any legitimate concern for pluralism in education.

At the base of this whirlwind is a phrase familiar to Georgia residents who listened to endless reports about the Cobb county “warning” stickers early last year. “Evolution is a theory, not a fact” was part of the disclaimer read to biology students in Dover before the board simply mandated the teaching of creationism also. The time-tested and easy answer to that particular phrase is to point out that the theory of evolution is on equal footing with the theory of gravity. But, more to the point, if we’re so hot to see “alternate theories” being taught in schools, why aren’t we teaching the theory that diseases are caused by an imbalance in the humours of the body: earth, air, fire, and water? The answer is simple: because that theory is an absurd holdover that dates back thousands of years and was discredited by the theory of cellular pathology in 1858 (incidentally just one year before Darwin’s Origin of Species was published). In short, it’s just plain wrong, but when has that ever stopped a religious fanatic?

The ID camp’s sole argument for their stance is that the presence of a designer is implied by the complexity of organic life, but this is nothing more than the teleological argument for the existence of god, the fifth of Thomas Aquinas’ five “proofs.” The simplest disproof of this is the reductio ad absurdum: if the complexity of life requires a designer, then that designer must be at least equally complex and therefore also require a designer, leading to an infinite regress of designers designing designers designing designers. But all of this is philosophy, having nothing to do with hard science. ID is so imprecise in its assertions, it technically doesn’t even qualify as a theory at all. It is impossible to falsify, makes no testable predictions, and is based on no empirical evidence whatsoever.

In fact, the so-called “controversy” that IDers wish to see taught in public schools doesn’t even exist! No one in the sciences controverts the basic assertions of evolutionary theory; we see natural selection in action every flu season. The arguments concern punctuated equilibrium, group selection, the Cambrian explosion, and a whole host of other fascinating biohistorical phenomena completely unrelated to the validity of evolution as a theory in and of itself. This is just another case of lazy parents trying to legislate their duties into the public school system so they don’t have to be bothered with trifling matters like setting an example or spending time explaining their beliefs to their children. If you want your children to understand that you disagree with evolution, tell them, and stop shoving your ignorance down the public throat.

Unfortunately, I’m limited in my ability to point out the multitudinous fallacies of ID here. For those interested in a much more thorough treatment of the manufacturing of the “debate” between ID and Darwinism, the ties of ID to the Christian right, and the wealth of evidence that flatly contradicts the few scientific claims that ID has attempted to make, I highly recommend ecologist Jerry Coyne’s article “The Case Against Intelligent Design,” available at www.edge.org, as an excellent starting point. For a critique of the teleological argument as it pertains to evolution, I suggest Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker. Either will be infinitely more accurate than the outdated mythology on which the ID movement relies for its baseless assertions.