Fundamentalist religion, misinformation, and the controversy over embryonic stem cell research in Michigan

Two years ago, there was a brouhaha in Missouri over a ballot proposal to allow state funding for embryonic stem cell research using discarded embryos from fertility clinics. The issue made national news, including some rather despicable rhetoric from Rush Limbaugh about Michael J. Fox, who made ads in support of the Missouri initiative, as well as deceptive ads against the proposal featuring Patricia Heaton and members of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was a big stink that drew national attention.

Fast forward to two years later and to my home state of Michigan, and history appears to be repeating itself, although I fear that the outcome will be different this time. It turns out that Michigan has a similar issue on its ballot regarding stem cell research, but there doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the national attention aimed at the issue as there was at Missouri two years ago. Perhaps it’s because this is a Presidential election rather than a midterm Congressional election. I don’t know. However, the issues at stake are at least as interesting and important as the Missouri ballot issue. In fact, they’re arguably more so, given that Michigan presently has one of the most restrictive in the nation. Moreover, Proposal 2 says nothing more than this:


A proposal to amend the State Constitution to address human embryo and human embryonic stem cell research in Michigan. (Proposal provided under an initiative petition filed with the Secretary of State on July 7, 2008.) The proposal would add a new Section 27 to Article 1 of the State Constitution to read as follows:


Section 27. (1) Nothing in this section shall alter Michigan’s current prohibition on human cloning.

This is important, because a large part of the campaign of misinformation being directed against Proposal 2 is to scare voters into thinking that human cloning will legalized. Of course, the fear that opponents of Proposal 2 are trying to exploit is that somehow Proposal 2 will allow reproductive cloning and the production of human clone babies like something out of Star Wars. It doesn’t. The rest of the amendment reads as follows:

(2) To ensure that Michigan citizens have access to stem cell therapies and cures, and to ensure that physicians and researchers can conduct the most promising forms of medical research in this state, and that all such research is conducted safely and ethically, any research permitted under federal law on human embryos may be conducted in Michigan, subject to the requirements of federal law and only the following additional limitations and requirements:

(a) No stem cells may be taken from a human embryo more than fourteen days after cell division begins; provided, however, that time during which an embryo is frozen does not count against this fourteen day limit.

(b) The human embryos were created for the purpose of fertility treatment and, with voluntary and informed consent, documented in writing, the person seeking fertility treatment chose to donate the embryos for research; and (i) the embryos were in excess of the clinical need of the person seeking the fertility treatment and would otherwise be discarded unless they are used for research; or (ii) the embryos were not suitable for implantation and would otherwise be discarded unless they are used for research.

(c) No person may, for valuable consideration, purchase or sell human embryos for stem cell research or stem cell therapies and cures.

(d) All stem cell research and all stem cell therapies and cures must be conducted and provided in accordance with state and local laws of general applicability, including but not limited to laws concerning scientific and medical practices and patient safety and privacy, to the extent that any such laws do not: (i) prevent, restrict, obstruct, or discourage any stem cell research or stem cell therapies and cures that are permitted by the provisions of this section; or (ii) create disincentives for any person to engage in or otherwise associate with such research or therapies or cures.

(3) Any provision of this section held unconstitutional shall be severable from the remaining portions of this section.

Pretty straightforward, isn’t it? In fact, the intent of the proposed amendment is to prevent the state government from passing laws more restrictive than federal law and to permit the use of embryos that would be discarded anyway. Anyone who’s ever undergone in vitro fertilization treatments knows that it’s necessary to create far more embryos than will ever be used. The remainder are discarded. The only thing Proposal 2 does is to allow these embryos to find their way into laboratories to generate stem cell lines rather than ending up in the biohazard waste receptacles at fertility clinics.

Earlier this year, support for Proposal 2 was strong, but a recent story in the Detroit News reveals that support for Proposal 2 has weakened considerably:

State voters appear to have growing doubts about expanding embryonic stem cell research in Michigan — an emotional struggle in which supporters and opponents have committed $10 million, according to campaign reports filed Friday.

A new, Detroit News/WXYZ Action News poll shows the initiative, Proposal 2, leading by 46-43 percent — within the 5-point error margin. A month ago — before a saturation campaign of advertising paid in part by $2.79 million from the Michigan Catholic Conference — it was favored 50 percent to 32 percent.


Experts attribute the drop in support for Proposal 2 to the well-funded ad campaign by the opposition that has raised concerns in voters’ minds by suggesting its passage could cost taxpayers millions of dollars and lead to human cloning.

Prop 2 supporters say the anti-ads are misleading and deceptive.

Boy, are they ever! (More on that later.) Truly, the stupid does burn here.

If you want to see the sort of well-funded campaign that’s been launched against Proposal 2, check out the website of the main opponent, which, revealing its anti-science bias, is charmingly named Michigan Citizens Against Unrestricted Science and Experimentation and features dire warnings, such as “Proposal 2 Permits Unrestricted Science.” Oh, no! Unrestricted science! We can’t have that! (Actually, we’ve never had that.) Surely Frankenstein will follow and want to clone your babies! At least, that’s what MiCAUSE wants Michigan voters to believe. Of course, Proposal 2 allows nothing of the sort. It merely removes the onerous restrictions on such research that hamstsring researchers in the state and make the state a less congenial place for cutting edge biotech research and puts Michigan on an even footing with the rest of the country, a law that religious conservatives in the legislature have protected zeolously.

You want to know how restrictive Michigan law is? Here’s how bad it is: A researcher who uses frozen embryos left over from fertility treatment for research can be nailed with penalties of up to $5 million in fines and five years in prison. That’s how restrictive Michigan law is. It’s utterly ridiculous, with penalties far out of proportion to any conceivable crime. The war on drugs could learn a thing or two from the war on embryonic stem cell research when it comes to Draconian punishments. So restrictive is the law that researchers are reluctant to move to Michigan universities, and at least one left the University of Michigan for Stanford University:

Because of the state ban, he [University of Michigan researcher Sean Morrison] cannot create new embryonic stem cell lines. He can either import other scientists’ lines, or use a series of 21 embryonic stem cell lines preapproved by the Bush administration. Morrison says it’s costly and complicated to transfer cell lines, and the approved lines are contaminated because they were grown with mouse cells.

“We cannot make our own lines in Michigan. This delays the research and creates an inhospitable climate for recruiting people who study ES cells to Michigan,” he said. “People who specialize in embryonic stem cell research don’t even apply to U-M for jobs. It puts the state at a profound disadvantage.”

Even experienced researchers will move their labs for fear of what the next ban might be, Morrison said, noting a cancer stem cell researcher at U-M who moved to Stanford, partly because the research atmosphere was more open.

Interestingly enough, the arguments used against embryonic stem cell research almost always hide the true reason for opposition to it, which is, let’s face it, almost entirely religious in nature. It’s almost as though Proposal 2 opponents realize that religion is the elephant in the room, and they try desperately not to acknowledge it. They almost never just come right out out and say that they are against embryonic stem cell research because they believe it to be against their religion. That would be the truth; I could even respect that. What I can’t respect is that they choose instead tp couch their arguments in disingenuous, deceptive, and overblown utilitarian rationales, rarely, if ever, mentioning the true reason for their unwavering opposition to this research: fundamentalist religion, a religion that the majority of people in the state don’t happen to share. It’s also a case of flaming hypocrisy as well. The reason there are so many unused embryos out there is because of the popularity of in vitro fertilization techniques for infertile couples. Funny that the opponents of embryonic stem cell research don’t speak out against fertility clinics and try to pass laws banning in vitro fertilization. They know the backlash would be fierce. Prevailing mores apparently trump their religion when it comes to in vitro fertilization but not when it comes to embryonic stem cell research.

Chief among the arguments is that somehow Proposal 2 will inevitably lead to the taxpayers being left on the hook for huge subsidies for this research. Here are two representative ads:


Reading the language of the text of the proposed amendment, I”m hard-pressed to figure out where these mental giants get the idea that Proposal 2 will force taxpayers to fund this research. True, the amendment would allow the legislature to vote to fund the research, but there’s a huge difference between that and mandating public funding. And, of course, should Proposal 2 become law and legislation is introduced to fund embryonic stem cell research with state dollars, wingnuts like those at MiCAUSE will be there to resist any such move. Of course, MiCAUSE knows that it’s peddling a message that just isn’t true. We have a word to describe such behavior: Lying. Yes, MiCAUSE is lying to Michigan voters about this.

Another set of arguments that opponents of this research like to trot out is that embryonic stem cell research has not yet produced any treatments or cures. I really, really hate that argument because, quite frankly, it’s dumb, a veritable black hole of scientific ignorance. I’m sorry, but it is. Indeed, consider a post I did a while back about how long the average time between the concept of a treatment and an actual treatment. It’s on the order of two decades (or as long as four decades), and we have not been doing serious embryonic stem cell research for 20 years. On the other hand, opponents might have a point when they argue that embryonic stem cell research has yet to produce a cure and that perhaps its proponents may have oversold the benefits. They do (somewhat) have a point that adult stem cell research has produced treatments already. They have a point about these things, but that point is short-sighted and utilitarian to the point of close-mindedness. It’s science valued for nothing more than what it can do practically for people.

Of course, there is a reason why biologists are so interested in embryonic stem cells. They haven’t yet committed to a cell lineage yet, and that’s why the real biology that is of the most compelling interest to scientists comes from them; they’re potentially the most versatile. Indeed, this old editorial by David A. Shaywitz expresses that interest:

The good news is that underneath all this mess, stellar science really is happening. Stem cells have proved even more captivating than we could have imagined, and understanding the process by which a stem cell progressively differentiates into a specialized cell such as a neuron or a pancreas beta cell is perhaps the most compelling biology question for our generation. Stem cells have sparked our interest for good reason.

That’s right; we’re talking about basic science at its most fundamental level, learning for the sake of learning. Moreover, we should never forget that translational research (i.e., the production of “cures”) depends upon the understanding of the basic science, something boosters of adult stem cell research don’t seem to realize. Without a strong background of basic science to build upon, translational research grinds to a halt. Chris Mooney put it very well:

But when it comes to embryonic stem cell research, many scientists are on an intellectual quest for understanding–for a comprehension of nothing less than how embryonic stem cells actually set in motion the creation of the body in the first place. And studying adult stem cells alone, although these cells may be interesting, will never ever get them there. Period.

But along come the adult stem cell promoters, who have a very different agenda. In the main, they want restrictions on research. The research they don’t like has been sold by the media, by politicians, and by disease advocates on the basis of a promise of cures for diseases. So the adult stem cell cheerleaders start attacking the premise that’s most salient to them: the promise of cures. In the process, opportunistically, they wield scientific-sounding arguments, albeit very dubious ones. They say, we don’t need embryonic stem cell research to find cures because adult stem cells are showing great results, yada yada yada.

The scientists find this simply baffling–because, of course, the scientists aren’t merely disease advocates. They are intellectual explorers as well. So not only do they reject the notion that adult stem cells are somehow better than embryonic ones. Because the scientists are thinking in terms of how to increase our understanding, the concept of a certain type of stem cell research being “better” than another doesn’t even make sense to them in the first place. It’s mindboggling. It’s entirely alien.

I wouldn’t quite go quite as far as saying it’s “entirely alien” for scientists to think in practical terms, but Chris gets the concept pretty close to correct. The reason embryonic stem cells are of interest of more intrinsic interest than adult stem cells is that they hold the key to unlocking the biology behind human development and, in the process, revealing new insights into all sorts of related biology that could be applied to processes as diverse as spinal cord injury, cancer, birth defects, Alzheimer’s disease, and a wide variety of other diseases and conditions. In fact, we don’t know exactly where that understanding may lead us. That’s the point of basic research, albeit not the only point. Basic research also opens up new possibilities for therapies and diagnostic tests that we could never have imagined before. The discovery that genes are widely regulated by microRNA comes to mind as a recent example. So does the discovery of chemotherapy- and radiation-resistant stem-cell like cells in cancers that repopulate a tumor after the sensitive cells have been killed off. Consider something as basic as the discovery of organisms that can live in thermal vents, where the water temperature is 70° or 80° C–or even higher. The realization that their enzymes must be adapted to function at such extreme temperatures led to the idea that the DNA polymerase responsible for replicating the DNA of these organisms could be used to amplify DNA, and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was born in the late 1980s.

The potential for discoveries and even cures that we can’t even imagine at this point is why why embryonic stem cell research is so promising and fascinating. It’s also why it’s so frightening to its opponents. I was only half-joking when I mentioned Frankenstein earlier in this post. In fact, opponents do indeed view this research very much as a Frankenstein phenomenon: As the classic case of science going too far and Delving Into Knowledge About Life Itself That Humans Were Never Meant To Possess. This attitude is embodied in the title of a website produced by MiCAUSE: 2 Goes 2 Far, which is nothing more than the logical fallacy of the slippery slope writ in large, bold, colorful crayon. Get a load of this ad:

That’s right! Embryonic stem cell research is the same as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment! Experimentation on a ball of cells in a tissue culture dish or in rodent models is, in the eyes of embryonic stem cell research, the same as experimenting on the poor and minorities. It’s just the same as observing poor black men with syphilis to observe the natural history of the disease without intervention or treatment and letting them develop tertiary syphilis. Or so MiCAUSE would deceptively lead Michigan voters to believe. Surprisingly, the geniuses who produced this ad managed to show unexpected restraint by not showing images of Adolf Hitler, Dr. Josef Mengele, and Auschwitz. I’m sure they thought about it, though. After all, nothing says science run amok unmoored from any moral consideration quite like Dr. Mengele and Auschwitz. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if MiCAUSE is saving just such an ad, complete with pictures of emaciated concentration camp survivors, for this week in the final sprint to Election Day.

Finally, there’s always one last gambit to be played when it comes to embryonic stem cell research. It is, as PalMD pointed out, the “Michigan man-cow” gambit, otherwise known as creating human-animal hybrids:

MiCAUSE counts on the general ignorance of the Michigan public about these issues, and the anti-science posturing and anti-intellectualism in its ads, particularly the one above, are striking. (Are your neurons undergoing apoptosis or necrosis?) The graphics and language in the ad above imply that the combination of–oh, no!–human DNA with bovine cells would somehow result in “man-cows” or unholy hybrids of humans and animals wandering around. It won’t. It’s simply a mechanism to generate new stem cell lines using a model system in which human DNA is placed in a bovine ovum, as well as to get around a shortage of human eggs. No, objection to the creation of human-cow hybrid cells is also based almost entirely on religious objections, specifically the concept that humans are somehow different from animals. I could understand the moral objection if such embryos actually did result in a real cow-human hybrid, but that’s not the case at all. Even though the nucleus of the bovine egg is removed before any human DNA is injected into the cell, what opponents object to is that bovine mitochondrial DNA remains in the stem cells created from these hybrids.

I kid you not.

What I find most amazing about this anti-stem cell crusade is, when you get right down to it, just how cowardly organizations like MiCAUSE are. They know their reasons for opposing embryonic stem cell research are entirely religious in nature. They think using human embryos in research is wrong because they believe the embryos to be human beings from the moment of conception. I may disagree with that religious viewpoint, but it’s what they believe and as such an acceptable objection. But do they come right out and stand up for their faith by just saying that embryonic stem cell research is against their religion? Of course not; they almost never do that. If they were honest about the real reasons for their objections, they know their campaign would be less effective. Even as I wonder how a cash-strapped Church can justify spending millions of dollars to influence this election, I can’t help but notice that at least the Catholic Church is honest and up front about the reason for its objection to Proposal 2. Its objection to Proposition 2 is entirely religious, and it makes no bones about saying it opposes the amendment because Church teaching says embryos are of the same moral value as people. Unfortunately, the end result of its doing so is to attempt to impose its theology on the entire State of Michigan. I may not agree with the Catholic Church on this particular issue, but at least it’s honest about the reasons for its objections.

Not so MiCAUSE. It’s too weaselly to state its true objections to Proposal 2 in its ads. Instead, it disingenuously tries to make voters believe that it’s all about taxpayer money and arrogant scientists run amok messing with nature itself. It’s not. It’s about religion, period. To argue otherwise is to lie. Hardly Christian behavior.

Sadly, I’m increasingly agreeing with PalMD. MiCAUSE is likely to prevail. Fundamentalist religion will likely prevail. Meanwhile, one potential strength that Michigan might have had, its strong research institutions, including Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University, and their research power, will have unnnecessary, religiously-imposed limits placed on them, and biotech companies will remain reluctant to set up shop in the state.

Too bad. The auto industry is fast heading into the crapper, and there’s nothing to replace it. Michigan continues to have one of the two highest unemployment rates in the nation. (I recently read that Rhode Island edged it out by 0.1%.) But, hey, who cares if biotech is hampered in my home state, as long as the Catholic Church and fundamentalist religious wingnuts are allowed to impose their will on the rest of the state? I just wish organizations like MiCAUSE were honest enough just to come out and say that’s why they’re opposed instead of running deceptive and intentionally emotional ads to try to provoke the fear of Frankenstein scientists Tampering With What Should Not Be Tampered With in Michigan voters and trying to scare them with dubious nightmare scenarios.

Or are they embarrassed by their religious beliefs?

ADDENDUM: You can support Proposal 2 by voting for it if you are in Michigan and donating to Cure Michigan, regardless of where you are.