The Stem Cell Madness

No Miracle Technology Here

A few years ago, President Bush announced an important federal policy: the government would not fund stem cell experiments on any embryos except those that had already been destroyed. (And Wilberforce forum supported this decision.) Then, a few weeks ago, the House of Representatives voted to fund the destruction of “spare” in vitro embryos for experiments. It’s now time for us to take a long, deep breath and reflect.

Supporters of embryo stem cell research have long claimed that further embryo research would provide cures for a host of diseases. But there is one disease that embryonic stem cells can never cure: wishful thinking. The recent hysteria over stem cells has swept the nation into a dervish-like frenzy. People now chant the mantra “stem cells, stem cells, stem cells” as if this will give us magical powers over disease and even death itself. Sadly, they don’t recognize that few scientists actually want to use the in vitro extras. It’s really just bait-and-switch: biotech advocates seek to pull Congress down the crumbling slope into cloning.

Perhaps you have mused that it would be wonderful if Ron Reagan Jr’s ridiculous speech to the Democratic Convention last year were true. It would be great if embryo stem cells could cure the vast array of degenerative diseases. It would be fantastic if we could conquer the trials that threaten man’s mortality and often become our gateway into afterlife. But, in the process, Reagan believes we must create and then destroy one set of twins for every sick person.

And, of course, his claims are not true. They’re speculation, the most egregious example of hype. They’re despicable, nothing more than a play on the fear of the sick and the sympathy of their relatives. But those distinguished scientists who have poured gasoline on the flames of hype have taught us one thing: you can’t trust scientists. Many of them are decent men and women, but they do not represent a new priesthood. The idea that they are purveyors of integrity (as well as hope) has been lost forever. We can’t trust them any more than we can trust others.

As we know, so-called “adult” stem cells are already curing many diseases in clinical trials all over the world. (See stemcellresearch.org for details.) These stem cells can be taken from cord blood or the tissue of people who give consent.

Embryo stem cells, however, can only be extracted by killing a nascent human being. What’s more, they have proven difficult to work with. They are amazingly plastic, but the problem is they are too plastic. This makes them hard to control and they often turn into tumors. So far, there’s been little evidence of success—even in animals.

Yet the hot idea – the Ron Reagan idea – has nothing to do with defrosting the in vitro embryos. It has everything to do with cloning them afresh. Yes, this “therapeutic cloning” idea has already propelled the editorial boards of the nation into a frenzy.

It’s even taken some (formerly) pro-life leaders by surprise. Governor Blunt, for example, has now declared that he wants to clone embryos. Why? Because they are not really embryos at all—they’re not the same as in vitro embryos or embryos made in the womb. (And these remarks come from a man who was swept into power with the backing of the Missouri pro-life community!)

Someone once commented: if you believe in the pre-scientific worldview of magic, then something is what it is because you wish it so. Thus, if cloned embryos aren’t real embryos, then Dolly wasn’t a sheep embryo, or later a full-grown sheep. And if Dolly wasn’t a sheep, then language has lost all meaning.

Of course, we also have the amazing Proposition 71, California’s most bizarre contribution to the history of democracy and science. For those of you not familiar with this development, California has committed six billion dollars (including interest) to an utterly speculative technology. And this is coming from a state that is nearly bankrupt! Since it was passed last November, many of its key backers have begun to turn on the hubris and avarice with which it was designed. After all, the Institute set up by the Proposition is free from open meeting laws, conflict of interest regulations, and control by the democratic process through the legislature. It’s basically free to spend its huge resources in pretty much any way it chooses. Californians will continue closing emergency rooms and cutting back on education and social services, but the Institute will stand—a monument to the folly of America’s Stem Cell Hysteria.

And if you think this is over-stated, read afresh the pro-71 literature. It claims not only that these miracle cures will come, but that they will save huge sums (perhaps more than 20 billion) in health care costs. (Reality check: why is there hardly any private investment in this miracle technology? Go figure.)

The media thinks the “religious right” is responsible for stalling vast federal cloning investments. If you believe that, you need to check out what has happened in Canada. No one claims that the religious right runs this gay-marriage nation. Yet they have banned cloning, all cloning. If a California Institute researcher (flush with corporate welfare funding from Prop. 71) strays north of the border, he will become a celebrity of a new kind—he’ll face the prospect of five years behind bars.

“Therapeutic cloning” has few friends outside the hungry and heedless U.S. biotech community. In fact, the UK is the only major European nation to back it. Australia has made it a crime. And France. And Germany. And, of course, the United Nations. They have voted by nearly 3-1 for the UN Declaration on Human Cloning—a declaration that urges all nations to ban it.

We need to tackle the Stem Cell Madness before it sucks up our money and mass produces embryos destined for destruction. We cannot allow it to sap the strength of weaker members in the pro-life movement either.

Nigel M. de S. Cameron is the Director of the Council for Biotechnology Policy and the President of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future.

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