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Opinion: A truce in the stem cell wars?

by Richard HayesSan Francisco Examiner
November 24th, 2006

The contentious midterm elections clearly left a mark on the politics of stem cell research, but itís not clear what the mark signifies. Missouriís closely watched stem cell initiative barely squeaked by with 51 per cent of the vote, despite a $30 million campaign financed almost entirely by a single wealthy couple. And in nine congressional races identified as high priority by stem cell research advocates, the stem cell candidate won in only four.

At the same time, at least 60 percent of all races in which stem cell research was an issue ó including high-profile races for Congress, the Senate, and governorships ó were won by the candidate supporting the research. And thereís no denying the frenzied TV and YouTube campaigning by partisans on all sides reinforced the identity of "stem cells" as an iconic trope of the culture wars.

Incoming Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged a vote on federal stem cell funding "within the first 100 hours" of the new Congress. It appears there are now enough votes in the Senate to override a presidential veto. The House, however, is still perhaps 40 votes short of the 291 needed for a veto override. Thereís speculation that the Bush administration may find it prudent to refrain from a veto nonetheless, as a way to avoid having stem cells become an even deeper wedge issue in 2008.

Itís possible that the bargaining over such a move could result in the passage and signing of legislation that establishes expanded federal funding of stem cell research that relies on embryos created in in-vitro fertilization procedures but not used for reproductive purposes. This would be a welcome development in a long and divisive controversy.

On the other hand, the election results ó and the way they are now being spun ó may embolden some research advocates to push for even less regulatory oversight than currently proposed. Stem cell partisans could also mount a multi-state initiative drive as part of a national strategy intended to impact state and federal legislative races and the presidential contest itself.

Such moves would be unfortunate. Many stem cell advocates are using appeals to the compassionate values of Americans to secure approval of laws, including state constitutional amendments, that impede responsible public sector oversight of problematic technologies ó in particular the controversial procedure called research cloning, which raises concerns about health equity, risks to women recruited to provide their eggs for research, and the misuse of clonal embryos.

Itís disappointing that the lessons learned by Californians after voters in that state approved a major stem cell ballot initiative in 2004 have not been taken to heart by candidates and voters elsewhere in 2006. The scientists at the California stem cell institute now acknowledge the prospects for stem cell therapies so widely heralded in the 2004 campaign were overstated. It granted control over $3 billion in taxpayer funds to a committee dominated by biotech corporations and research advocates. This is no way to conduct research of such potential consequence.

The stem cell wars have been so divisive for so long because the two most active contending constituencies represent polarized ideological positions. On the one hand are religious conservatives who oppose any medical research involving the destruction of human embryos. On the other are scientists, the biotech industry and research advocates who resist even reasonable social oversight and control of powerful new biotechnologies.

But polls show the great majority of Americans hold to a more nuanced ethical middle ground: They are not irrevocably opposed to embryonic stem cell research if it clearly has potential for major medical benefits, but they are wary of giving scientists and biotech entrepreneurs a blank check to develop powerful technologies with enormous social implications.

The precautionary attitude that seems to inform the judgments of most Americans is exactly what we need to guide us, not only through the stem cell debate, but through looming debates over a host of new and questionable human genetic technologies: genetic "enhancement," sex selection, human-animal experiments, and more.

The Democrats succeeded in the midterms because they reached out to moderate voters that Republicans had taken for granted. Responsible leaders from both parties now have an opportunity to craft stem cell policies that represent the broad middle ground of American opinion. They can put a divisive debate behind us and set an important precedent for future debates on human genetic technology.

Richard Hayes is executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland.

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