As the magnitude
of the Democratic win in the midterm elections becomes clear, observers
are pondering the new prospects for stem cell research. The election
results don't support the "overwhelming mandate" or
"successful wedge" interpretation of some pundits (example
But the political winds have clearly shifted.
Nancy Pelosi has pledged that the new Congress will vote "within
the first 100 hours" to expand federal funding of stem cell
research using embryos created but not used for reproduction—a
repeat of the measure that was passed by both houses but vetoed
by President Bush last summer. Most analysts count enough votes
in the Senate to override a presidential veto. The House of Representatives,
however, is still some 40 votes short of the 291 needed for an override.
There's speculation that the Bush administration may find it prudent
to refrain from a veto nonetheless, as a way to avoid having stem
cell research become an ever deeper wedge issue in 2008. Or, if
both Democrats and Republicans decide that some bipartisan gestures
are opportune, a stem cell entente could be in the offing.
It's possible that the bargaining over such a move could result
in an acknowledgement that more effective federal regulation and
oversight of this research is needed, and in a real commitment to
put such policies in place. This would be a welcome development
in a long and divisive controversy.
a less optimistic picture is also plausible.
Some campaign consultants and research advocates
are spinning the election results to push stem-cells-as-wedge further
and deeper. And the rampant distortions in the campaign rhetoric—especially
during the final two weeks, dominated by ads on television and the
Internet—has further confused and polarized the way much of
the press, policy makers, and the public understand stem cell research.
As a result, stem cell partisans may push for even less regulatory
oversight than is currently proposed. Alternatively, they may opt
for the multi-state stem cell initiative drive that has been mentioned
in press coverage. Either of these scenarios could be very problematic,
especially because some of the researchers and stem cell advocates
who are eager to begin working on research cloning (SCNT) are dismissive
of concerns it raises about health equity, risks to women recruited
to provide their eggs for the work, and the need to prevent misuses
of cloned embryos.
Enthusiasm about embryonic stem cell research need not preclude
strong support for careful oversight and control. Let's hope that
the federal government loosens its restrictions on the embryonic
stem cell lines available for funding and moves toward effective
oversight. Let's hope too that the stem cell debate moves in a new
direction, one that reflects both hopes for scientific and medical
advance, and also serious attention to the social and ethical risks
that some aspects of stem cell technology entail.
The contentious debate over stem cell research is unlikely to mark
the end of political controversy about human biotechnologies. As
developments in human biotech proceed and the biotech industry grows,
so too does our need for a biopolitics committed to social justice,
human rights, and the common good.