George Claassen

'Science saves lives'

2005-06-03 11:23

It was a pleasant surprise, but scientists should not pop the champagne corks on behalf of mankind yet.

Nonetheless, the news this past week that the US House of Representatives had withstood pressure from President George W Bush not to approve a bill lifting restrictions on stem cell research on human embryos, was greeted widely as the voice of reason prevailing over fundamentalist thinking.

Bush and the religious right wing that brought him to power, argue that stem cell research on human embryos "create incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life", as reported by The Guardian last Wednesday.

Put in simple terms, Bush and his supporters cry murder when they are confronted by the possibility of stem cell research on human embryos.

Scientists, on the other hand, have been arguing that research on human embryos opens up vast possibilities to cure debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and numerous other diseases.

Benefits of Science 'cannot be ignored'

The House of Representatives' - where the president's party is in the majority - decision to lift the restrictions imposed on stem cell research on human embryos, shows that the benefits of science just cannot be ignored by people thrusting their perceived moral superiority on the rest of society.

The new bill allows for the use of embryos in fertility clinics that are often discarded and not used in creating babies, to be used in research. The choice is now left to the couples undergoing fertility treatment to decide what to do with embryos that won't be used.

Such potential parents have five choices: putting the embryos up for adoption, donating them directly to other couples in need for embryos, without court interference, storing the embryos for future use, throwing them away, or, most importantly, donating them to science for stem cell research.

One can only speculate why this sudden and unexpected change of heart has taken part of the lawmakers normally known for their conservative religious agenda.

The death last year of former President Ronald Reagan after suffering more than 10 years of Alzheimer's disease, and the pleas of his widow, Nancy, to allow stem cell research on human embryos, must have quietly played its role.

But the reality is that the First World's population is getting older and virtually no one - not even members of Congress - have not been affected by a parent, grandparent or family member suffering from Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, as well as numerous other incurable diseases - all of them potentially curable by stem cell research on human embryos.

The debate about stem cell research on human embryos and the reality of human cloning have had their benefits. Not only has it emphasised the need for clear ethical guidelines in science, but it has also made society revisit its unrealistic clinging to holy doctrines thousands of years old, but which can clearly not provide answers to 21st century dilemmas.

Science needs to be given a chance to save people's lives despite our often skewed interpretation of what is morally right or wrong.

  • George Claassen is a science writer for Die Burger and teaches science journalism at the University of Stellenbosch. His book on science, Geloof, Bygeloof en Ander Wensdenkery - Hoe Vrees en Vals Hoop Mense Mislei, will appear shortly at Protea Boekhuis.

    Send your comments to George or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

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