U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's ruling this week halting federally funded stem cell research took me back immediately to a chilly era I have not revisited in some time: the two administrations of George W. Bush.
During the eight years he was in power, I felt as if I were living under a repressive Roman emperor or Stalin's Secret Police. Freedom of expression was not welcome and toeing Bush's religiously driven federal policy line was de rigueur.
Stem cell research is one of those issues whose opponents emanate almost exclusively from the uber-religious. I say uber-religious because there are plenty of religious Americans who support embryonic stem cell research. But those who follow so-called church law or church teachings to a point of absurdity comprise the vast majority of stem cell research opponents. These are the folks for whom proselytizing is an acceptable, even required daily activity.
I'm not a fan of many of President Barack Obama's policies. But embryonic stem cell research is our future. From these and only these stem cells, researchers are on the verge of finding cures for everything from various forms of cancer, to arthritis and so on down the line of human afflictions. Embryonic stems cells are much more malleable and therefore much more valuable as research tools, than the limited number of stem cell lines that Bush approved for research use. His position against embryonic stem cell research was dictated by the Christian right, which for some inexplicable reason finds it more humanitarian to keep an unused embryo frozen, than to use it for research and possibly cure cancer for actual living, breathing, fully developed human beings who are in desperate need of a cure.
I find most social policy positions taken by not just Christian but all religious extremists to be fairly nonsensical. After, "Thou shalt not Kill," (or steal or lie, etc.) I'm not a fan. Why bother forming a movement to oppose gay marriage, for example? What a waste of time and energy. The same for abortion. Those who oppose abortions are nowhere required to have them.
But to oppose help for fully formed human beings who are very sick and could possibly be cured, to "save" a frozen embryo that will most likely never be implanted in a womb and therefore become fully formed, seems like insanity to me and like the height of cruelty.
My father died of multiple myeloma four years ago. It's cancer of the bone marrow. It's a relatively rare form of cancer, accounting for some 2 percent of all cancer deaths. There were four drugs used to treat it at the time of his death and doctors would use them sequentially until the patient's body could no longer tolerate the chemotherapy. When he was on the next-to-last drug he read about some embryonic stem cell research to find an entirely different kind of cure for multiple myeloma. Instead of relying on drugs to tame the cancer's progress, this research would train the body's own immune system to kill off the cancer cells. It did not arrive in time for him to use.
So whenever I read or hear that some devoutly religious person opposes stem cell research, I think of what a cruel person he or she must be. To deny medical care to my father and millions of suffering elderly Americans for the sake of a frozen embryo is beyond my ken. Even Nancy Reagan, a heroin to the Religious Right, does not side with those people on this issue.
Talk in Washington, D.C., is that it could require an act of Congress to overturn Lamberth's ruling. That would take years. Let's hope it is not necessary. It would be a pity to return to the days of Constantine or Stalinist Russia for that long a period of time.
Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe@CompuServe.com.