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Sunday, Oct. 24, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Best not to forget the women in the debate on stem-cell research


Embryonic stem-cell research is a hot topic in the upcoming elections in the United States. John Kerry has said that one of his first acts if elected president will be to reverse the Bush administration policy of no federal funding for ESC research. And in California, voters will decide whether or not to invest $3 billion of state money in ESC research over the next 10 years, an initiative that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorses, thus placing him in opposition to his own Republican Party.

Over there it's a controversial issue, but in Japan it isn't. Last July, a bioethics study group appointed by the prime minister's office recommended allowing therapeutic embryos to be cloned for ESC research. They also said that aborted embryos could be used.

These proposals could be controversial, but the research is already underway using the "resources" mentioned, so the study group, which also said that embryos should be treated with "dignity" even though they were "not exactly" living things, was essentially providing lip service for the government, which has already decided ESC research is the way to go.

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the capacity to develop into different types of cells. Scientists believe they will someday be helpful in regenerating damaged or diseased tissue. Actor Christopher Reeve, who died two weeks ago, had been paralyzed from the neck down since 1995 with a spinal-cord injury. He saw ESC as the best hope for people like him, as do sufferers of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and other diseases. However, embryonic stem cells can only be found in embryos, and removing them destroys the embryos, which is why many people oppose the research.

Regardless of how the embryo came about, women are indispensable, because ova are necessary for both in vitro fertilization and cloning. It is here where Japanese law gets a bit fuzzy.

The Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry says that about 300,000 pregnancies are deliberately terminated by Japanese doctors every year. However, abortion is technically illegal in Japan. Shortly after the war, in order to put a brake on the accelerating birth rate that was straining scarce resources, the government legalized abortion with a Eugenics Law. Several decades later, when the birth rate had stabilized, they tried to make it illegal again, but certain interest groups lobbied against it, and a kind of compromise has been in place ever since.

Abortion is prohibited except when either of two conditions apply: The pregnancy will endanger the mother's life, or the woman has extraordinary "economic" circumstances -- which have never been clearly defined. This second condition is so all-purpose that it effectively allows any woman who wants an abortion to receive one. The fuzziness of the law means related laws are just as fuzzy, as demonstrated last summer when the Asahi Shimbun pondered what happens to all those aborted fetuses.

It was the Asahi that broke the story about an obstetrics and gynecology clinic in Yokohama. In July, the paper ran an article about how the clinic had stopped performing abortions on fetuses older than 12 weeks, because after 12 weeks, dead fetuses are required by national law to be cremated and buried, and that costs money. However, there are no laws regulating the disposal of fetuses of less than 12 weeks, and the chief doctor threw these away with the regular medical refuse. Asahi and several other media outlets asked: Wasn't there something immoral about throwing away fetuses, regardless of how old they were?

Stung by the bad publicity, the police eventually arrested the chief doctor for dumping "hazardous waste," but the incident makes you wonder. If 300,000 abortions are performed in Japan every year, what are all the other ob/gyn clinics doing with their dead fetuses?

This question leads back to the study group's recommendation that aborted embryos be used for ESC research. There is little doubt that such "resources" are already being used for medical research, since there aren't any laws to regulate it.

The recommendation exemplifies the government's cavalier attitude toward women's bodies. Women are "permitted" to terminate pregnancies under a kind of wink-wink system that no one really takes responsibility for. Similarly, women aren't even mentioned in the study group's recommendations. Where will the ova come from that will be used to clone embryos? They don't grow on trees, and men can't make them. You can only get them by taking them from women's bodies, a process that isn't easy, and certainly isn't painless.

Mother Teresa once referred to Japan pejoratively as an "abortion paradise," but it doesn't mean Japanese women have won the right to control their bodies. That's the government's job, since the government considers itself the captain of the country's reproductive destiny, even if it hasn't figured out a way to produce babies by fiat.

But there are other ways, even if they are only hypotheses. Cloning may be banned in the United States and much of Europe at the moment, but in Japan it isn't, which may explain why the government is so keen on research into cloning therapeutic embryos. The next logical step is cloning human embryos, which would allow all those men in Nagatacho, not to mention all those male gynecologists, to realize their ultimate dream, which is to make children without having to deal with women.



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