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May 29, 2005 - Snowflakes in DC in May - or Just Flakes

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Last weekend in the pages we noted that scientists in South Korea come up with a medical breakthrough involving stem cells.  The medical community cheered.  The president said this was awful.  Congress considered moving to loosen the rules on the medical use of stem cells, and the president, who as governor of Texas broke the record for approving executions, without paying much attention to the cases he had to review, said he would veto any such legislation.  All life is sacred.  And now, in his fifth year in office, this would be his very first veto – if he doesn’t veto the highway bill first.

Well things came to a head, just after the filibuster compromise.  And his own party got uppity.

The basic story from Joanne Kenen at Reuters, Tuesday, 24 May –


Despite a veto threat from President Bush, the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday easily approved bipartisan legislation that would permit more federal funding of stem cell research on human embryos that would otherwise be discarded.

The House also approved by a 431-1 vote less controversial legislation that would expand research involving cells drawn from umbilical cord blood.

The embryonic stem cell bill, sponsored by Delaware Republican Rep. Michael Castle and Colorado Democrat Rep. Diana DeGette, would allow federal funding of stem cell research involving excess embryos from in vitro fertilization that would otherwise be discarded. It would not allow cloning a human baby.

The bill passed with a comfortable 238-194 margin, but was well short of the two-thirds threshold needed to override Bush's threatened veto.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe it destroys human life and object to using taxpayer dollars to finance it. They also charge that the promise of the research has been hyped.


Reuters also quotes House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – the former exterminator from Texas - "The deliberate destruction of unique living self-integrated human persons is not some incidental tangent of embryonic stem cell research. It is the essence of the experiment -- kill some in the hopes of saving others."

I think a problem may arise with his definition – that discarded, unfertilized embryos are unique living self-integrated human persons – but the bar for what could be considered a Christian evangelical Republican may be low.

The real problem Reuters notes –


… several conservative Republicans, who usually oppose abortion rights legislation, broke with their party leaders and the anti-abortion movement to support research, saying it held out hope for treating devastating diseases, like Parkinson's or diabetes.

Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in 21 years in Congress, he had voted only once against the anti-abortion movement. Announcing his support for the Castle-DeGette bill, Barton said his record would now be "100 percent minus two."

Missouri Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson described a similar struggle to reconcile her religious faith and the promise of technology. "I'm following my heart on this," said Emerson, who voiced regret for her past opposition to stem cell research.


This is going to get hot.  It seems that just after the vote three Democratic and three Republican senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist asking for swift Senate action on the legislation.  Their point?  "The American people want this."

Bush says he’ll veto this and the White house issued a statement that the legislation "relies on unsupported scientific assertions to promote morally troubling and socially controversial research."

Yep, these guys know their science.  Ask them about global warming.  No proof.  Ask them about evolution.  The jury is still out.

But what to do if the American people want this?  Tug on the heartstrings, as you see in this from the Knight-Ridder wire –


House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas called stem-cell research "a scientific exploration into the potential benefits of killing human beings."

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, an obstetrician, played a recording of fetal heartbeat, and declared, "This is what it's all about."

Bush made it clear he shared that view, meeting Tuesday with a group of "snowflake babies," children born from embryos left over from fertility treatments. "The children here today remind us that there is no such thing as a spare embryo," he said.


Over at The Nation this is noted in their section they call "Outrageous Outtakes" –


Republicans have invented a new strategy for discounting science: snowflake babies. First, Republicans opposed to the bipartisan stem-cell research bill, which passed the House on Thursday, arranged a press conference with families that have adopted frozen excess embryos, featuring 21 of the 81 snowflake babies. Then, in the afternoon, President Bush appeared at the Rose Garden for a photo op with the snowflake babies as part of a press conference on bioethics. (Click here, here and here for the pictures.) And, finally, the biggest baby lover of them all, Tom "the Hammer" DeLay, spoke on the House floor behind a poster of--what else--enlarged photos of snowflake babies.


Pictures of babies always work to sway an argument.  Who doesn’t like babies?

And if that doesn’t work, well, there is the prospect of a filibuster!


No – wait!


Those are unconstitutional and thwart the will of the majority and the people! That what they said.  But the Republicans have no sense of irony.  Pro-life Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and a possible presidential contender, has confirmed he will filibuster the Castle/DeGette bill the House approved Monday.

This just gets better.  Sponsors of the Senate version of the bill say they have 58 votes to approve the measure.  They need 60 to stop a filibuster.

But is Bush just being reasonable?  He says this legislation would violate his 2001 policy – and that allowed federal funding for stem cell research but limited it to 78 stem cell lines that existed as of Aug. 9, 2001.  Unluckily only twenty of these lines turned out to be useful for basic research.  The others cannot be used in people because they were contaminated with mouse feeder cells.  Oh well.  One has to make do.

No is buying that these twenty lines are enough.  No one is buying much of the whole snowflake argument.

Jesse Taylor here


Bush's position is tremendously unpopular, although that's not new for him. The Wall Street Journal openly admits that Bush's line in the sand is not only arbitrary, but rests on a tenuous principle - a minority of Americans should not have their tax dollars used to finance research they consider objectionable. This, of course, makes perfect sense in light of the fact that Bush is the chief promoter of abstinence-only education, which millions more Americans find objectionable, as well as factually and morally wrong in its patent dishonesty. A plurality of Americans is being forced to support education and research in our schools that they in no way support, because Bush has the "courage" of his "convictions".

Let Bush veto a bill that nearly 60% of the American public supports. I'd love to see it, if for no other reason than that he's both deeply unpopular and resting his objection on the intensely nonsensical idea that it's okay to use baby corpses if they were already killed before he got there. There's absolutely no reason to compromise on good science to save the political fortunes of a lame duck president.


Yep, the Wall Street Journal flat out says they "don't see any great moral difference from doing time-limited research on unused embryos created for in-vitro fertilization, as opposed to letting those in-vitro embryos be destroyed."

On Thursday the Los Angeles Times says the obvious


Photographs in Wednesday's papers of President Bush with cuddly little babies, all of whom were produced from surplus fertilized eggs at fertility clinics, represent a White House attempt to deal with the biggest flaw in logic regarding its stem cell policy — and its moral weak point. This is the fact that fertility clinics routinely create many test-tube embryos for every human baby that is wanted or is produced.

Here is what happens to those embryos: Some are destroyed because a microscopic examination indicates that they are defective or abnormal. Some of the rest are implanted. But generally, there are some left over. These may be discarded, or frozen for future attempts, or frozen indefinitely; it's up to the customers.

A small fraction of couples choose to donate their unneeded embryos to other infertile couples. Several are implanted in each prospective mother, sometimes producing multiple births. Sometimes they produce one. Frequently, they produce none at all. And about 20% die before they reach full term. The entire process therefore unavoidably involves the creation and knowing destruction of many embryos.

This leads to two conclusions. First, Bush's policy is illogical; he not only tolerates in vitro fertilization — the president celebrates it (correctly) as bringing happiness to many. It is a "pro-family" policy that unavoidably involves creating and destroying embryos.

Second, encouraging the donation of frozen embryos to prospective parents, even under the most optimistic scenario, would put only a small dent in the supply. According to a 2003 study, there are almost half a million frozen human embryos in storage in the United States. The vast majority of them — 87% — were frozen in case the parents might need them, but the vast majority of that vast majority will never be needed or used. An embryo-adoption drive wouldn't save the embryos that die in other stages of the process. And ironically, the recipients of donated fertilized eggs also generally have several implanted in the hope that one will survive. In effect, donation results in the deaths of embryos that would otherwise stay frozen.

… The president is threatening to veto this bill. If he does, these embryos will either be destroyed or frozen forever. They will not develop into cuddly babies. Therefore a veto wouldn't actually save a single embryo. His threat is purely symbolic.

If you really believe that embryos are full human beings, this doesn't matter. But if you think the issue is uncertain or ambiguous at all, it's a powerful argument to say: It's not a choice between a human life and an embryo's life. It's a choice between real human lives and a symbolic statement about the value of an embryo. And it's a statement belied by the reality of in vitro fertilization and how it works.


Well, these guys really do believe embryos are full human beings – DeLay says so.  And they love symbolic statements.  That’s where the votes are.

Curiously, you don't see anti-choice men hanging out at fertility clinics to harass the women there, do you?  (See that at Happy Furry Puppy Story Time with Norbizness.)  And someone – not sure who – proposed a thought experiment.  Imagine you are in a burning fertility clinic.  You have seconds to get out.  Your mother lies unconscious on the floor.  On a nearby tabletop is a container of thousands of unfertilized embryos scheduled for disposal.  Save the one human – you mother – or the thousands of humans?  Think fast.  You’d let thousands die?  Yeah, right.  What if they were fertilized and scheduled for disposal?  Same choice?

Jesse Taylor again here


An in vitro clinic generally deals with the embryo from stage one to the beginning of stage four. Stage four cannot complete itself unless doctors place the embryo in the womb, and if stage four does not finish, that's about as far as an embryo can get. It cannot reproduce, it cannot grow, it cannot really respond to any stimuli except implantation.

This, of course, leads Tom Delay, who received his medical degree from the back of Bill Frist's minivan, to declare that that embryos in this early stage four state are human beings. The Washington Post has the exactly correct response, but this led me to start thinking about all the ways in which we "imperil" embryos in fertility clinics.

One of the major reasons a woman will undergo invitro fertilization is that, for whatever reason, her body either rejects the implantation of embryos or she has miscarriages - in other words, her body is functioning improperly and creating an environment hostile to the production of an actual viable child. In vitro fertilization implants embryos (which are full-fledged human beings) into environments such as these, which often have a greater than 50% chance of destroying the embryo before it even implants properly, not to mention the chances for miscarriage before the embryo develops into a viable fetus. Long story short, families and doctors make a routine practice of imperiling the lives of thousands of "full fledged human beings".

It would be more "humane", in Tom Delay's world, to harvest these embryos and never implant them - the risk involved in pregnancy is virtually genocidal... and they're already alive, right?

Pregnancy is the greatest threat to humanity since the Flood. Sorry, ladies.


Jesse has it right.  By the logic of Bush-Frist-DeLay you, these clinics and the doctors – and woman in general – are committing genocide.  All the time.  Yipes.  This Taylor woman from Dayton, Ohio has their number.

It’s all spin.

This letter isn’t.  It is from a woman who adopted one of those frozen embryos from a fertility clinic.  A snowflake mom.  And someone who says this administration "makes it a point of pride to display its disdain for both science and metaphysics more complex than a first grade Sunday school primer."

Just a sample –


First, 'conception', 'life' and 'living distinct beings' are not the same thing as 'fertilization', no matter how much it serves one's purposes to make it so. Fertilization and the creation of blastocysts is an unremarkable event that takes place daily. If that embryo doesn't implant, there is no conception, no life, no pregnancy. Every day millions of women have 'embryos' floating around in their uteri, flush them during menses and nobody bats an eye. These embryos that have not implanted and sunk a vein and begun the process of advancement are not, even by the most conservative of standards, life. Nobody posits funerals or mourns for the millions of these that are, with no awareness, flushed every day. Give a woman as many pregnancy tests with an embryo inside her that has not implanted as many times as you like—there will be no positive result, pee on as many EPT sticks as you like, no plus sign. This is why after an IVF transfer (the two week wait) people so anxiously wait—they are hoping—desperately—that they have CONCEIVED. It hasn't happened yet.

That embryo may or may not implant and create a conception, a pregnancy, but one thing is for certain—those women who get their period without ever knowing there was a fertilized egg that failed to implant are not flushing 'living distinct human beings.' There is the potential for a conception—nothing more. So, ladies—suck it up and deal—Bush and DeLay need you to stop menstruating post haste—just cross your legs and get thee to a an OB-GYN every 28 days. You see, we need to blood test you and ultrasound the hell out of your uterus in case you absent mindedly were about to flush a 'living distinct human being', because we're all about a 'culture of life'—just not yours. You're an incubator. We need to stem the flow of blood in this culture of death, and apparently that means your menstrual flow.

Secondly, these frozen embryos are so incredibly valuable to the administration that they cannot be used for embryonic stem cell research… because they need to be… THROWN OUT! What they fail to understand is that the disposition of these embryos, like banked chord blood or donated blood or tissue donation, lies with the donor. When you participate in an IVF cycle you sing a form that determines what happens to any leftover fertilized eggs. The choices are cryogenic preservation for: adoption, stem cell research, later transfer to the originating parent, medical research or destruction. DeLay, Bush and his cohorts are saving nothing. It's not as though these embryos in cryogenic willed for research are know suddenly going to be adopted or implanted. They won't—our 'culture of life' perversely demands that they be thrown into the garbage—that's how precious they are, and that's how much we value them. We must destroy life, according to the administration, to AVOID preserving life! Go back and re-read that sentence. …


Read the whole letter.

This is madness, or pandering to the all-life-is-sacred pro-death-penalty torture-is-necessary evangelical voters these guys depend on to keep them in power.  Or worst case – they really believe what they say and have no clue about biology or ethics, or logic - just deep, blind faith.  Take your choice.



For information on what the South Korean breakthrough was all about, see this illustrated primer - unless your faith forbids it.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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