There has been a recent flap in my area connecting the issues of embryonic stem-cell research and, surprisingly enough, home schooling. I became aware of what was going on a bit after the fact and am only now getting a chance to blog about it.
Here's the short version: The local newspaper, the Kalamazoo Gazette, asked three local high schoolers, including one home schooled young man, Justin Wing, to write opinion pieces on the topic of funding for ESCR. Justin and one of the two public schooled students were both against ESCR funding, though the public schooled student implied that it might be a good idea in a better economy. A local pastor, the Rev. Dennis Smith, then wrote a letter to the editor insinuating that Justin opposes ESCR only because he has been kept ignorant of relevant facts by some unspecified "religious curriculum" which, Smith presumes, he has been taught from. This, despite the fact that not a single one of Justin's arguments was religious in nature. Smith then insisted that home schooling must be more tightly regulated to prevent the emergence of young people who are thus indoctrinated by "religion" into opposing ESCR. There were strong and indignant responses from both state and national home schooling groups.
What neither of the responses stressed, however, was the most glaring and ironic point of all: Justin Wing argued from facts. The Rev. Smith, on the other hand, is himself a victim of misinformation--namely, unjustified promissory hype about ESCR.
(Full disclosure: I have known Justin Wing and his family for something on the order of a decade, probably longer. I haven't kept count.)
Before going on, I want to stress that I think it is indeed important to argue against ESCR on ethical grounds. Even if ESCR lived up to the extravagant promises that have been made on its behalf, cannibalizing very young human beings would be intrinsically wrong and utterly inexcusable. Nor is such an argument "religious" in the sense that the existence of God is a necessary premise of the argument, any more than the existence of God is a necessary premise of the argument that it is wrong to set up organ farms using human toddlers. The question is one of identifying a member of the human species and holding to the basic ethical premise that it is wrong deliberately and directly to kill an innocent member of the human species.
On the other hand, I don't consider it to be "selling the farm," as some people apparently do, to point out the baldfaced balderdash that supporters of ESCR talk about its promise and to point out the enormous and growing success of adult stem-cell treatments, plus the fact that adult treatments do not have the problems with tumor development that there are with ESCR (and IPSCs, for that matter). Analogy: If "scientists" were out there telling people that eating toddlers will enable you to fly and will make you immortal, and if in fact those who did so were likely to die a gruesome death instead, it would be perfectly legitimate to point out the relevant empirical facts ("It doesn't enable you to fly; it won't make you immortal. Instead, you are likely to die a gruesome death") in addition to pointing out that it's wrong to eat toddlers.
So I have no problem with Justin's argument based on the medical problems with ESCR (for those treated) and the much better success of adult treatments.
I have now checked the most salient points in Justin's letter and found only two small factual errors: The head of the exciting study in which adult stem-cells were successfully used to treat peripheral arterial disease is Dr. Franz, not Dr. Fritz, and the Israeli boy Justin mentions who developed tumors was treated with fetal stem cells rather than embryonic stem cells. (If anything, however, embryonic cells are even more likely than fetal cells to cause tumors.)
And, of course, anyone who follows Secondhand Smoke is kept abreast of the many other exciting developments in adult stem-cell treatments, including recently the treatment of blindness caused by chemical burns.
In contrast to Justin's sober and tightly organized discussion of the practical problems with ESCR and the real and growing promise of adult stem-cell treatments, Rev. Smith's letter is something of a joke. It combines wild accusations of child abuse against home schoolers with unintentionally humorous references to "substitut[ing] ideological indoctrination for actual education." Smith drags in religion irrelevantly and repeatedly, tosses in the words "pluripotency" and "differentiation" with the obvious expectation that his audience will swoon over the vast scientific knowledge that allows him to use them, entirely ignores the very real tumor problems that will bedevil any attempts to translate ESCR into actual treatments in human beings, and winds up with the typical sob-story flourish of the ESCR snake-oil salesman (or perhaps we should say snake-oil dupe)--the reference to a girl of his acquaintance with a rare disease who "might well be cured by a stem cell therapy growing out of unfettered research." Yes, well, Mr. Smith, get back to us in a few years and let us know how that's working out for you. After all, with Barack Obama in the White House, you're likely to get that "unfettered research" and can throw lots of taxpayer dollars down that black hole. I wish only the best for the young lady, but the best isn't going to come from ESCR, and you can quote me on that one.
As I was pondering the farrago of mouth-foaming totalitarianism and wish-fulfillment thinking that is Rev. Smith's letter, it occurred to me that it reminded me of something--namely, this strange op-ed piece (HT VFR) from a month back. The author, Jim Taylor, gets himself in a stew over all the supposed misinformation being bandied about on the Internet and fueling "divisiveness." Then he launches into a description of his solution for this problem, which he presents with a kind of written nervous laugh--a "Just joking" reference to his own supposedly "ironic tone" which is, in the context, more than a little implausible. Here's his "ironic" idea: The federal government should have a Department of Information to decide on the relevant facts for any matter of national importance and should have the power to fine people who disseminate anything contrary to the government-determined "facts." And who would we trust better to do this than the federal government? (Yes, I know. I'm sorry. I hope you weren't drinking coffee or anything when you read that last sentence.)
Taylor really needn't have bothered making his see-through claim of irony. It's not as though that totalitarian impulse is all that unfamiliar to people who have their eyes and ears open. By now lots of people have heard of ("disarm or cage") Daniel Dennett's claim that we must refuse to tolerate those (he mentions, inter alia, Baptists) who persist in teaching their children what Dennett considers to be scientific falsehoods. And in Rev. Smith's letter we just see the same unveiled totalitarianism; Smith didn't happen to be suave enough to claim that he was being ironic when he thundered that home schooling curricula should be ideologically monitored by the government, and besides, such a claim would have made his letter pointless, wouldn't it? (Hmmm.) There is a kind of baffled fury that comes over a certain type of liberal when he realizes that his crowd is losing its monopoly over the instruments of information dissemination and opinion-making, be it by way of talk radio, home schooling, or the Internet. What? People are doubting something that all of us Enlightened Folk consider to be beyond doubt? Worse, they have the wherewithal and the opportunity to make their false ideas widely available to others? How dare they? They must be stopped right now! We're the only ones who get to indoctrinate anyone, especially the young.
The faux claims of neutrality would be laughable if they did not have such potentially serious consequences. But the totalitarian arrogance of willful ignorance is in the final analysis nothing to laugh about. Now, as always, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.