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The Republicans like Santorum, Romney, and their BFFs in the anti-stem cell community want to take something away from your human rights and give it to cells including the one celled fertilized egg (zygote). They are especially in favor of taking rights from women and conferring them upon cells. In this piece I discuss the politics that are killing the hope of stem cell research and taking away our rights.

The danger of taking rights from people and giving them to cells

The Republican Party and its affiliated groups have ramped up a campaign to give human rights to cells. In fact, in many cases the Republican leaders and the so-called “Personhood” movement want to give human rights to just one single cell: the human fertilized egg or zygote.

If we give human rights to a cell such as the zygote then in that equation there is no choice but to devalue the rights of actual real human beings.  In this reality, women especially will become second-class citizens behind cells.

As surprising as it is for a party that claims it is for keeping government out of our lives, Republicans and many extremists seem to be arguing lately for cells’ rights. They are in favor of taking away women’s rights, cutting aid to poor children, eliminating social security, and executing prisoners who might be innocent. But when it comes to a possible threat to fertilized eggs or few days-old blastocysts, they start carrying on like they are going to bring out their pitchforks and torches.

For example, in Mississippi voters were asked whether to give the zygote, a single cell, full human rights. Thankfully even in arguably one of the most conservative states in America, the voters shot down the “Personhood Amendment”. If it had passed, the amendment would have made a fertilized egg by definition a human being with the same rights as a living, breathing, thinking person in the state of Mississippi. A zygote would be by law a Mississippian.

Similar personhood laws are now under consideration by lawmakers in other states including in Virginia, where Governor Bob McDonnell, a potential GOP VP candidate, is also supporting a law that if passed would force women who need to get an abortion to first undergo a transvaginal ultrasound, using an internal probe, against their will. Such state-mandated violence against women, which arguably could be called rape, puts the rights of the developing embryo above that of women.

If personhood laws pass as seems increasingly likely in some states, the consequences are not clear, but possibilities include such things as complete bans on all abortion and many forms of contraception, outlawing embryonic stem cell research, and throwing women, doctors, and scientists in jail.

Republicans are also picking a fight again and again with President Obama over contraception as well, based again on the notion that a small cluster of cells should have more rights and protection than the woman in whose body it happens to be.

As much as I, as a stem cell biologist, think a fertilized human egg is a pretty amazing thing, it is not a person. I do not see how this one single celled zygote, no matter how cool, is the same as person.

Now some of the cells rights extremists are carrying Horton Hears A Who signs, referring to that famous story by Dr. Seuss (aka Ted Geisel). In that story there are little microscopic people on a dust speck and we are taught that they deserve respect and rights like the larger creatures of the world. Perhaps the moral of Horton is that even small people and kids (i.e. actual people, not Whos) should be treated with respect. I totally agree with treating kids with respect as human beings, but the story takes it to an extreme to make that point resonate with kids. It’s a great story.

However, the reality is that microscopic things like cells are not the same as people.
Even if the opponents of embryonic stem cell research and of contraception might convince themselves that they can hear microscopic one cell embryos crying out for their help (from ‘evil’ scientists and women) like Horton hears the Whos, the reality is that a cell like the zygote or even a blastocyst with a few dozen cells has no voice, no organs, no brain, etc. Even though some have argued that cells actually do make sounds, perhaps the molecular machines in cells squeak or clang at times, they are not talking.

A cell is not a person.

Some have argued that human fertilized eggs are people because they have a diploid human genome, but by that argument the mole on my Great Aunt Bertha’s nose is a person because it has human DNA.

In the big picture, the sad and dangerous irony here is that it is the same people who so violently defend the rights of zygotes that also show disdain for actual living, breathing people, especially women, the poor, and children.

What will come next?

I can just see the protestors now with signs “Votes for zygotes!” The way the cell rights people are going, this would not shock me.

This diary is written by Dr. Paul Knoepfler, associate professor of cell biology & human anatomy at UC Davis School of Medicine. Currently, Dr. Knoepfler is the only faculty level stem cell blogger in the world at He writes about the science and politics related to research, especially stem cells. You can follow him on Twitter at pknoepfler.

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