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If someone asks you how much a life is worth, take two pennies out of your pocket, hand them over, and be on your way. That is to say, if you ever needed more proof that lives are decided for better or worse by popular opinion — by our collective two cents — then look no further than the current state of federally funded embryonic stem cell research in this country and the small-picture, uninformed rhetoric that frames the debate.

Here we go.

Earlier this year, two scientists filed a lawsuit against the federal government alleging that any research that destroys embryos is unjustifiable. The scientists were adult stem cell researchers and filed the case on the grounds of unfair competition.

The fact that they were staunch pro-life advocates was beside the point to the judge, who ruled in the scientists’ favor in August. He granted an injunction, meaning that no new National Institutes of Health grants were given for ES cell research. Others who had applied for grants had the money withheld, and confusion descended on the research landscape. The judge’s decision is currently in the process of being appealed.

The popular controversy has driven Penn researchers away from ES cell research and into less divisive areas. However, “what is really at stake is people your age who are making career decisions,” said Medical Ethics professor Jonathan Moreno, who was the co-chairman of the National Academies Press’ Committee on Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. The stigma that this injunction has freshly attached to ES cell research, then, has already deterred many potential scientists regardless of the outcome of the court appeal.

For current researchers, “the uncertainty is the worst part,” said Paul Gadue, assistant professor at the Children’s Hospital Of Philadelphia. “It’ll be pretty rough. We would lose a big, seven-year grant. A post-doc I know would lose funding in July. The hope is that we can do something with current grants, but we … we just don’t know.”

Gadue raises a good point by raising a point at all. Whenever we talk casually about scientific progress we refer to the researchers as a nondescript ‘they.’ “They’ve cloned sheep,” you might say. “Are they gonna make cyborgs next? Should I invest in a shotgun?” This debate is far too often framed as a dual-sided, pro-life versus pro-choice face off. But the ES cell researchers are, in fact, people with career aspirations, families, red blood and fears. Any constructive dialogue about controversial research such as this must consider all the moving parts — not just the embryos or the Christopher Reeves who are almost literally locked in mortal combat, but also the folks in between who are involved with these issues day in and day out. I have seen the “they.” They are real.

There is a disconnect between the scientific community and the general populace, leading to misinformation and tribalism. Arthur Caplan, director the Center for Bioethics at Penn, was one of the people who first came up with the consensus to use discarded embryos from fertility clinics. “We could create them, clone them or use spares from the fertility clinic, which is a compromise that many people accepted,” Caplan said.

Many, but not all. Nursing junior Catherine Dierkes, co-president of Penn for Life, said, “I feel that any action that violates or destroys the life of a human is morally wrong.” When asked her opinion about researchers who use ES cell lines from already dead and soon-to-be-discarded embryos, she looked pensive. “I never thought about this … I don’t think they’re doing anything ethically wrong, I suppose.”

Dierkes’ response may reflect the need for a more coherent, informative discourse between academia and main street that includes factors like the plight of researchers and students. A discourse where, for instance, pro-life includes pro-quality-of-life and pro-livelihood.

In other words, the next time a person asks you how much a life is worth, I beg you to have exact change.

Mark Attiah is a first-year medical student from Dallas. His e-mail address is Truth Be Told appears on alternate Thursdays.

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