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Special Review: New Controversies over Stem Cells and Cloning

Genetic Crossroads
July 9th, 2004

Ronald D.G. McKay
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.

newsletter "Stem Cells an Unlikely Therapy for Alzheimer's: Reagan-Inspired Zeal for Study Continues," Rick Weiss, Washington Post (June 10)

newsletter "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)

newsletter "Stem Cells Not Alzheimer's Priority," Malcolm Ritter, Associated Press (June11)

newsletter "Harnessing Stem Cells To Battle Alzheimer's Is at Least Worth a Try," Sharon Begley, The Wall Street Journal (July 2)

newsletter 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 bonds.

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 allocation.

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 manipulative.

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.

newsletter "Long road ahead for stem cell initiative: Proposal to finance research qualifies for state ballot," San Francisco Chronicle (June 4)

newsletter 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)

newsletter 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."

newsletter "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 Nations

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.

newsletter "Watchdog Postpones Decision on Human Cloning," John von Radowitz, The Scotsman (June 24)

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.

newsletter "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 ban.

newsletter "Scientists lobby the UN to ban cloning," The Telegraph (June 2)

newsletter "Arab states consider total ban on human cloning," Science and Development Network (June 9)


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