Congratulations. You and the rest of metro Atlanta have just become ground zero in a national debate over the limits of science and, not incidentally, when life begins.
The fight will pit Georgia’s largest and most powerful education institutions — and not a few sympathetic business heavyweights — against the conservative Christian base of a Republican party that rules the state.
One side will insist that souls are at stake. The other side will argue that there are lives to be saved. And jobs to be had.
“In some ways we missed the whole [microchip] revolution, job-wise and research-wise,” Michael Adams, president of the University of Georgia said in an interview this week. “I think this is an opportunity. For the good of the country, the good of people’s health and the economic development of the state, we need to press forward.”
The cauldron has been bubbling at the state Capitol for several years. The last fight was in 2009, over a Senate bill that — in one form — would have barred, among other things, the use of human genetic material in research involving other animals. The measure failed.
But science has provided the most immediate ingredients for a confrontation in Georgia.
In May, the University of Georgia unveiled a line of 13 custom-made pigs whose organs may some day be developed for human use, without rejection. Scientists used human DNA as a trigger to reprogram porcine adult stem cells into more malleable, powerful — but still porcine — embryonic stem cells.
The 20-year breakthrough has vast economic and medicinal potential — for the state and for UGA. And it was exactly the kind of research the 2009 legislation attempted to block.
On Tuesday, another, even larger shoe dropped. Geron Corp., a California firm, announced that the Shepherd Center in Atlanta had become the site of its first human trial involving embryonic stem cells. The subject is an unidentified, partially paralyzed patient who was injured only within the last two weeks.
No government funds are involved in the bottom-rung test at Shepherd, approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The baseline aim is to test whether treatment involving embryonic stem cells poses any threats to human patients.
The accident of geography alone is sure to encourage scientists at UGA, Georgia Tech and Emory University — who are following their own paths.
Embryonic stem cells, capable of morphing into virtually any tissue in the body, are largely drawn from unused fertilized eggs created during in vitro fertility treatments.
But anti-abortion activists and others who believe that life begins wherever a human egg and sperm meet — whether in a womb or Petri dish — contend that drawing genetic material from embryos amounts to snuffing out a life.
In the governor’s race, Republican Nathan Deal and Democrat Roy Barnes are on opposite sides of the issue. Deal opposes the research. Barnes supports it.
Regardless of who is elected governor, the fight will occur in the trenches of the Legislature — which is sure to remain Republican.
Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life, promised a renewed attack on embryonic stem cell research when the General Assembly convenes in January — though proposed legislation won’t be sketched out for weeks or months.
Becker also pointed to the increasing political clout of the anti-abortion movement. This summer, Georgia Right to Life became a vociferous opponent of Karen Handel, whom the group declared too liberal on GRTL’s core issue, in the Republican race for governor. Handel also opposed restrictions on invitro fertilization.
But the ground has changed since 2009. The research under attack — largely theory then — is now a fact on the ground, and thus may be harder to stop. Two prominent backers of the 2009 legislation in the Senate, Republicans Preston Smith of Rome and Ralph Hudgens of Hull, will be missing from that chamber.
Then there’s the fact that pro-life legislation has a history of becoming lost in the maze of House committees.
Yet with the stakes so high, a confrontation is likely to require the personal intervention from the leaders Georgia’s academic institutions. “I certainly believe that Tech and Georgia and Emory will be united on a position that this research should go forward,” said Adams, the UGA president.
He is not sure of the particulars, but Adams was very clear about past messages he’s delivered to state lawmakers.
“I have great respect for the people who have a different viewpoint than I do — especially those who see this on ethical and moral grounds. I’m concerned about life,” the university president said. “I’m a dedicated Christian. I don’t want to see any misuse of this science. But I believe that the good that comes to society far outweighs the negatives.
“I also tell them that, from where I sit, this has the ethical advantage of doing for other people in need what we would want done for ourselves,” he said — adding that the possibility of ending diabetes or Parkinson’s Disease is too profound to ignore.
“This is one of those areas where two groups of well-meaning people disagree,” Adams concluded. “And yet there’s no secret about what our position is.”