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New Directions for Stem Cell Politics?

Genetic Crossroads
November 15th, 2006

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 1, 2). 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

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