|Ronald D.G. McKay|
Controversy continues over research cloning and
embryonic stem cell policy, generating higher political and
financial stakes than ever before - along with continuing uncertainty,
ambivalence, and confusion.
Several countries and U.S. states are in the midst of policy
debates, and the stem cell issue has entered the U.S. presidential
election. The United Nations is preparing to consider again
a proposed global treaty on human cloning. And a bond measure
on the California ballot this November would allocate three
billion dollars of public money for stem cell research, with
priority going to work not currently funded by the federal government,
explicitly including research cloning. At the same time, a comprehensive
study of opinion polls shows that many in the U.S. remain uninformed
about the issues.
The prevailing media framework views these issues
largely through the lens of "science versus religion"
and abortion politics. This is particularly true in the U.S.,
where to date the most visible opposition to embryonic stem
cell (ES cell) research has been based on conservative religious
beliefs about the moral status of human embryos.
An array of differently motivated considerations, voiced mostly
by pro-choice progressives, has been under-reported. Focusing
on research cloning rather than on ES cells, these include concerns
about deficits in social oversight and control of consequential
human biotechnologies, social justice in the allocation of resources
devoted to biomedical research and health care, and the risks
of opening the door to a new high-tech eugenics.
Unfortunately, the simplistic "science versus
religion" framework remains firmly in place in coverage
of recent developments.
The U.S. presidential campaign and the California stem cell
initiative have the potential to exacerbate this situation.
In reaction to Republican calls for prohibitions on research
cloning and embryonic stem cell research, some liberals and
progressives are responding by advocating not only that such
technologies be allowed but that they be given special exemption
from regulatory control. Under the polarizing pressures of partisan
conflict, liberals could find themselves unwittingly endorsing
policies that further the corporate control of biomedical research
and could open the door to an era of free-market eugenics.
Stem cells, fairy tales and counter-spin
The death of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan on June 5
from Alzheimer's disease triggered dozens of editorials, news
stories, and op-ed pieces about Nancy Reagan's outspoken advocacy
of embryonic stem cell research. Most urged the Bush administration
to loosen its restrictions on federal funding for using IVF
embryos to produce ES cell lines, but often without taking any
position on research cloning. This was also the approach of
letters to President Bush from bipartisan groups of 58 Senators
and 206 House members, and of John Kerry's announcement that
if elected he would increase federal funding for ES cell research.
Though much of the commentary accepted Nancy Reagan's claims
that embryonic stem cells are crucial for research into Alzheimer's,
a few experienced science writers have done some reporting aimed
at correcting that misconception. According to Washington
Post reporter Rick Weiss, "the Reagan-inspired tidal
wave of enthusiasm stands as an example of how easily a modest
line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological
proportions. It is a distortion that some admit is not being
aggressively corrected by scientists." Among the scientists
quoted by Weiss to explain that situation was Ronald D.G. McKay,
a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological
Disorders and Stroke, who commented, "To start with, people
need a fairy tale. Maybe that's unfair, but they need a story
line that's relatively simple to understand."
The "fairy tale" quote was widely posted on websites.
In response, a Wall Street Journal commentary both acknowledged
the intense politicization of the stem cell debate, and partook
of it. After reviewing a number of animal and human studies
in which researchers demonstrated limited success at best in
treating neurological conditions with adult or fetal (not embryonic)
stem cells, science writer Sharon Begley described the obstacles
to treating any brain disease with any stem cells as "formidable."
She noted that in comparison with other brain diseases, "[in]
Alzheimer's the challenge is greater." But rather than
suggest that other approaches to Alzheimer's be explored, or
that stem cell research might be better focused elsewhere, or
simply that caution is in order, Begley concluded that the unlikelihood
of its success is all the more reason to "throw everything
we can" at ES cell research for Alzheimer's.
"Stem Cells an Unlikely
Therapy for Alzheimer's: Reagan-Inspired Zeal for Study Continues,"
Rick Weiss, Washington Post (June 10)
"Stem cells for Alzheimer's?
Approach unlikely to yield cure for the disease, experts say,
although some look to endogenous stem cell manipulation,"
Anne Harding, The Scientist (June 11)
"Stem Cells Not Alzheimer's
Priority," Malcolm Ritter, Associated Press (June11)
"Harnessing Stem Cells
To Battle Alzheimer's Is at Least Worth a Try," Sharon
Begley, The Wall Street Journal (July 2)
The Kaiser Daily Reproductive
Health Report published compilations of editorials and opinion
pieces on Reagan's death and stem cell research:
California ballot measure would give researchers $3
billion in public funds
A group of biomedical researchers and biotechnology
entrepreneurs, financed by several wealthy Californians with
children affected by serious illness, are setting up what they
hope will be a defining event in the controversy over public
funding of embryonic stem cell research. They have placed on
this November's state ballot an initiative called the "California
Stem Cell Research and Cures Act of 2004" (Proposition
71) that would give them a three billion-dollar research fund
paid for with public money in the form of taxpayer-supported
It's easy to understand the frustrations of patient advocates
and researchers with the Bush administration's restrictions
on embryonic stem cell research-restrictions that were clearly
imposed to please the religious conservatives to whom George
Bush is politically and ideologically beholden.
But even those who support public funding of embryonic stem
cell research have serious reasons to question this three-billion-dollar
The initiative requires California to spend enormous sums
of public money on a narrow and speculative line of research
when the state is still suffering from its worst budget crisis
ever, when millions of its citizens have no health insurance
at all, and when other high-priority medical research receives
no state funding whatsoever.
The three billion dollar fund would be controlled by a new
entity, the "California Institute for Regenerative Medicine,"
which would be governed by a committee defined by the initiative
to be dominated by biomedical researchers and biotechnology
companies-representing precisely the individuals and organizations
that would be the beneficiaries of the new Institute's disbursements.
The initiative would amend California's state Constitution
to provide a "constitutional right to conduct stem cell
research"- marking what is perhaps the first time that
a specific topic of research has been proposed as a constitutional
right. The Institute it establishes would be allowed to hold
closed meetings, violating the spirit if not the letter of the
state's "open meeting" laws. It also effectively prevents
elected officials from exercising oversight, by requiring a
supermajority vote of the legislature and the governor's approval
of any changes or revisions in the statute law.
The initiative endorses and prioritizes research cloning,
despite the fact that currently there is no effective regulation
of research cloning in the United States or in California. A
state process to consider guidelines for research cloning was
de-funded because of budget crisis.
The promise of "cures" in the Act's title, findings,
and declarations will no doubt be repeated in television advertising
and other campaign materials, in which the initiative's backers
say they will invest $20 million. But many scientists and others
would consider such promises misleading and irresponsible, even
Embryonic stem cell research should be permitted, and should
receive public funding. States such as New Jersey, New York
and in fact California have already taken steps to permit this.
But the Stem Cell Initiative appears poorly drafted, and could
create as many problems as it seeks to address.
"Long road ahead for stem
cell initiative: Proposal to finance research qualifies for
state ballot," San Francisco Chronicle (June 4)
Several of the researchers
who have played key roles in crafting the California initiative
are profiled in:
"Doctor Who? Scientists are treated as objective arbiters
in the cloning debate. But most have serious skin in the game,"
Neil Munro, Washington Monthly (November 2002)
The text of the initiative
can be found at
Public opinion remains inadequately informed and volatile
After studying more than 150 U.S. opinion polls on views on
stem-cell research, Ohio State University Professor of Journalism
Matthew Nisbet concluded that "the public doesn't know
much about the science or the policy surrounding stem-cell research,
and that means they really haven't solidified their opinions."
He did find public support to be highest for stem cell research
that uses either adult cells or IVF embryos, and far lower for
research using cloned embryos as sources of stem cells.
Unsurprisingly, Nisbet found that the results of the opinion
surveys depended heavily on the phrasing of questions, which
in turn depended on who commissioned the poll. He said that
this is likely to be particularly true of recent polls, conducted
after the conclusion of his study, because they have been "commissioned
in part to test communication strategies that could be used
by research advocates, not as scientific instruments that carefully
and validly measure public opinion."
"As Stem-Cell Debate Heats
Up, Public Still Uninformed and Undecided," Ohio State
University Research News (June 22)
Research cloning in the UK, Japan, and at the United
The United Kingdom's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
(HFEA) announced on June 24 that it has postponed a closely
watched decision on whether to grant a license for research
cloning to investigators from Newcastle University. In the UK,
one of a handful of countries that have said that research cloning
may be acceptable, each proposed study of research cloning must
be approved by the HFEA's Research License Committee. The committee
stated that it will "request further expert opinion"
about the proposed research cloning project and "reconvene
upon receipt of this information." Ian Wilmut, the scientist
famed for producing Dolly the cloned sheep, has said that he
will also be submitting a proposal for research cloning to HFEA.
"Watchdog Postpones Decision
on Human Cloning," John von Radowitz, The Scotsman
The Japanese government announced it will permit research
cloning after strict rules, including the establishment of an
official oversight system, are in place. Japan has already made
reproductive cloning a criminal offense punishable by up to
10 years in prison.
"Japan Approves Limited
Human Cloning," Agence France Presse (June 23)
Delegates to the United Nations are gearing up for their third
attempt to draft a global cloning ban. Past efforts have stalemated
over the issue of research cloning (as has cloning legislation
in the U.S. Congress). A large group of scientists met and asked
the UN to ban only reproductive cloning. But earlier this month,
the Arab League announced that all of its member countries may
decide to ban both reproductive and research cloning nationally.
This changes the total number of countries who may favor a strong
"Scientists lobby the
UN to ban cloning," The Telegraph (June 2)
"Arab states consider
total ban on human cloning," Science and Development Network