Stem cells and supreme folly 

Imagine for a moment that it’s 1905, and right-wing religious types are in control of the Michigan Legislature. Some of them, led by the Amish, have grave religious doubts about the morality of the newfangled horseless carriages.

So they pass a law severely restricting research into these infernal combustion engines. Exasperated, Henry Ford, Willliam C. Durant and Walter P. Chrysler take themselves and their operations off to California.

Had that happened, today Detroit would be a small town, and Michigan would be Noplace North. Well, guess what. We’re at a similar crossroads. This time the stakes are even higher, and the nuts are winning.

The issue is stem cell research. Stem cells can turn themselves into specialized cells, which scientists say offer realistic hopes for treating many diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Potentially, stem cells could also help regenerate cells lost to spinal cord injuries and many other serious problems. There is probably no more exciting frontier in science today, particularly the life sciences.

Naturally, any place that achieves a major breakthrough is virtually guaranteed to become the center of a host of institutions, which in turn will provide high-quality jobs and be a stimulus for other development.

Accordingly, the University of Michigan has just started a new Center for Stem Cell Biology, set aside more than $10 million for the purpose and put Dr. Sean Morrison, a brilliant young stem cell scientist, in charge of recruiting faculty.

That sounds promising — until you know the rest of the story. Though there is some benefit to be gained from studying stem cells from adults, scientists agree that the real potential is in embryonic stem cells, which have much more flexibility, and are more likely to turn themselves into whatever’s needed.

Yet religious conservatives are horrified by the thought. To them, an embryo is a human being, and the thought of using one for research is sacrilegious, etc. Some of them probably have visions of labs where abortions are performed around the clock to get genetic material for mad scientists.

But nothing is further from the truth. Researchers who work on embryonic stem cells get them from fertility clinics. When someone attempts artificial fertilization, the clinics produce far more embryos than they need.

Some are implanted in the would-be mother, and the rest are basically flushed down the toilet. These are not “fetuses” in the recognizable sense; these are what are called blastocysts, little clumps of barely visible cells. These aren’t anything that would become a baby; most couldn’t survive even inside the womb.

However, they do have tremendous potential for medical breakthroughs. But Michigan politicians, following in the footsteps of George W. Bush, have made it exceptionally hard to realize that potential. Soon after he became president, the Shrub said the federal government would only help fund embryonic stem cell research if it was done on a very few existing “lines” of previously acquired genetic material.

Unfortunately, all that material has been contaminated with mouse DNA, and can no longer be used for research that would be tested on humans.

More enlightened states have decided they don’t intend to give Bush and the Primitive Mud Holler Unwashed Churches of America a veto over progress. Last fall, Californians voted to spend $3 billion on stem cell research. Other states are spending hundreds of millions, which makes Michigan look pretty puny.

But money isn’t the main problem. Michigan has, to our shame, some of the worst laws against stem cell research in the nation. That is bound to severely hamper poor Sean Morrison’s attempts to recruit top-notch faculty. Dr. Robert Kelch, CEO of the U-M health system, knows this all too well.

Recently, he told Detroit Free Press medical writer Pat Anstett that Michigan is bound to lose top scientists (it already has been) and business if the law isn’t changed. “Our environment just isn’t as good as other states,” he said.

State Rep. Andy Meisner (D-Ferndale), has been trying to do something about that. He has a bill (HB 4900) to remove restrictions on embryonic stem cell work, while stiffening the penalties against human cloning. Polls show the vast majority support this, including red-hot liberal (not) U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has introduced a similar bill in Congress.

Naturally, our lawmakers haven’t done a thing. One might expect our sainted governor to think outside the box and start pushing for this, but taking a stand on anything is risky business, you know.

Yet if there’s anything any of us should push for, this is it. Bug your state reps and ask what they’re doing to help make this a reality in Michigan. You have a big personal stake in this, comrades — or will if you live long enough.


Harriet Miers: Nothing speaks as clearly about what is wrong with our politics and government today than Georgie Bush’s pathetic nomination of his crony and former staff secretary to the U.S. Supreme Court. What is equally telling, and almost as bad, is the reaction of the brain-dead Democrats.

This woman has no business on the U.S. Supreme Court, and I’d say that even if I knew she agreed with me on every important constitutional question. There is no more important body in the land. Nine justices get lifetime appointments to interpret the U.S. Constitution any way they see fit.

The Supreme Court ended legal segregation, made abortion legal and installed George Bush as their selected president of the United States. Whatever you think of those decisions, they were world-changing.

Personally, I think nobody should be nominated to the highest court in the land who has not been a federal judge, a state supreme court judge or a person like Detroit’s own Robert Sedler, a distinguished professor of constitutional law who has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

There have been exceptions, the most notable of which are Chief Justice Earl Warren and the recently expired William Rehnquist, who started out as an associate and later was elevated to chief justice.

But Warren had been governor of California, a vice-presidential nominee, and was a lawyer and a skilled political operator who knew how to bring people together. He later became the conductor who orchestrated the badly needed unanimous decision that outlawed segregation in the schools. Rehnquist had at least been an assistant attorney general and a clerk for one of the Supreme Court’s best justices.

Harriet Miers was a faceless corporate lawyer who served one two-year term on the Dallas City Council.

By any measure, she has the same qualifications to be on the Supreme Court that I do to be president of Harvard University. Yet we have Democrats who are happy because they think she’ll be weak, unlike some of the powerful conservative judges they feared Bush would appoint.

Once upon a time, there actually was a Democratic Party with vision, guts, an actual program. I don’t see anything resembling that now.

However, cowardly politicians, like flatworms in a petri dish, do understand pain. Flatworms will move away from a hot wire, and we need to make our senators realize that they have a duty to fight this appointment. This nomination shows contempt for all of us, and the high court itself. Right-wingers like George Will actually understand this. The rest of us should too.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to Hear him weekdays at 1 p.m. on WUOM (91.7 FM or

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