Published October 19, 2006
This November, voters in Missouri will be asked to consider a ballot initiative on human cloning and embryonic-stem-cell research. The initiative has been the focus of an intense (if lopsided) campaign in the state for months, with millions of dollars in ads calling for passage. But many of the most basic facts about just what the proposal says and aims to do have not fully emerged.
The Kansas City Star this week reports that the initiative’s sponsor, the Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, has spent more than $28 million on the effort. More than 97 percent of the money has come from James and Virginia Stowers, the billionaire founders of American Century mutual funds, who have also founded a research institute in Kansas City that wants to take a leading role in the stem-cell game. $28 million is a lot of money, and would have paid for a lot of stem-cell research. Why spend it on this initiative campaign instead? What exactly is it buying?
The official summary that will appear on the ballot tells voters the initiative’s first purpose is to “ensure Missouri patients have access to any therapies and cures, and allow Missouri researchers to conduct any research, permitted under federal law.” In other words, to take away from state legislators the authority to govern the practices of stem-cell scientists in the state, and to hand that authority to the federal government alone instead. Missouri could not regulate any practice that Congress has not seen fit to regulate.
An Explanation Is Due
The initiative’s advocates have not done much to explain to voters why they should cede this bit of sovereignty, or why even those who support embryo-destructive stem-cell research should think that state legislators would restrict it more than Congress would. Indeed, while the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to ban all human cloning, and the Congress each year passes restrictions on federal funding of research in which human embryos are harmed, no such bills have ever even come up for a vote in the Missouri legislature.
More peculiar still, the actual text of the initiative does not quite match the summary’s assertion that all research permitted nationally would be protected in Missouri. In fact, the initiative bans the creation of human embryos through in vitro fertilization if it is undertaken solely for research purposes, and bans the extraction of cells from embryos older than 14 days. Neither is prohibited under federal law, and the former is a fairly regular practice. Stem-cell researchers, especially in the private sector, produce and destroy embryos solely for research purposes all the time. (Here, on page 22, for instance, is an ad from the Washington Post’s Express commuter paper asking women to provide their eggs for such endeavors.)
More Radical Than the U.N.
The official summary’s next item, and by far its most deceptive, only complicates things further. It tells voters the initiative would “ban human cloning or attempted cloning.” But in fact, the ballot initiative would create a new state constitutional right to human cloning.
Human cloning, sometimes known by its technical name “somatic-cell nuclear transfer” or SCNT, involves creating a new human being that is genetically identical to an existing human being. It could be done by removing the contents of a woman’s egg cell, and filling it with the contents of an adult cell (for instance, a skin cell) taken from the body of a donor. The result would be a developing human embryo with the genetic identity of the donor of the adult cell — an embryo like any other, but with only one genetic parent rather than two. This is how Dolly the sheep was created, and many other mammals since, though no one seems to have mastered the technique in humans just yet.
Once created, this cloned human embryo would be in the same situation as any other embryo produced in the lab, and one of two things could be done with it: It could be implanted in a woman to grow to term and be born, or it could be destroyed so that its stem cells could be removed for research. SCNT therefore means either bringing a cloned child into the world, or creating human embryos solely to destroy them for science. Huge majorities of the public agree that cloned children should not be produced, and even the ballot initiative itself seems to disapprove of creating a human life solely to destroy it for research. Therefore, since creating a cloned embryo by SCNT would allow only for two unethical options, the ethical option is to prohibit the practice altogether, and avoid that impossible choice. President Bush has called for such a ban, and the House of Representatives (though not the Senate) has voted for it. Even the U.N. General Assembly last year adopted a declaration calling on member states to “prohibit all forms of human cloning.”
On their face, the Missouri initiative and the campaign supporting it imply that is what the proposed constitutional amendment would do. But further down, tucked away in its definition section, we find that when it speaks of human cloning the initiative refers only to efforts “to implant in a uterus” the embryo produced by SCNT in an attempt to initiate a pregnancy.
The act of implanting an embryo in a woman’s womb, performed with IVF embryos many times every day, is not what makes human cloning different. What is different is the act of cloning — somatic-cell nuclear transfer — by which the embryo is originally created. Cloning to produce an embryo to be developed to birth and cloning to produce an embryo to be destroyed for research are both human cloning, carried out identically. As James Battey, chair of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force, told a congressional committee in March, “The first step, the cloning step, is the same, but the intended result is different” (emphasis added). But the initiative, by redefining cloning, protects the practice while pretending to prohibit it.
Moreover, the combination of the first and second sections of the initiative would mean that the Missouri constitution would first privilege and protect the creation of cloned human embryos for research (as long as federal law did not prohibit it) and then would mandate the destruction of these embryos.
Cloning Above the Law
And that’s not all. In what must rank as the most peculiar section of this very odd proposal, the initiative goes on to state that research using these embryos needs to abide by state and local laws, but only as long as these laws do not “prevent, restrict, obstruct, or discourage any stem cell research or stem cell therapies and cures that are permitted by the provisions of this section,” and do not even “create disincentives for any person to engage in or otherwise associate with such research or therapies and cures.”
This quite simply puts human cloning above the law in Missouri. How far would it go? Do labor laws or the fire code “restrict” cloning research? Do property taxes on the Stowers Institute “discourage” it? Surely income taxes on cloning researchers who might move to Missouri “create a disincentive” to engage in the research, and limits on political contributions by the Institute discourage politicians from associating with it. If inserted in Missouri’s constitution, this amendment would essentially permit cloning researchers in the state to flout any law they found constraining, and permit the Stowers Institute to be a law onto itself. Not a bad deal, and one that may even be worth $28 million to the Institute.
But why should the people of Missouri put up with it? The extravagantly
funded campaign to get them to do so has of course avoided mentioning that the initiative creates a constitutional right to human cloning and sets those who clone above the law. It has also neglected to note that human cloning research on any serious scale would require massive numbers of eggs from massive numbers of women, and that extracting those eggs carries serious risks. It even skips any mention of the fact that embryonic stem cells are derived by destroying developing human embryos — whether cloned or otherwise. Instead, the campaign has coined the euphemism “early stem cell research” to avoid the word “embryonic,” and in one television ad tells Missourians that “Early stem cells come from a microscopic group of cells smaller than a period.” Cells from cells, and not an embryo in sight.
Reckless Hype and Overselling
Most of the campaign’s other ads have focused on “cures.” One shows a doctor saying that far from endangering women stem-cell research “could lead to cures for diseases that concern women like ovarian cancer.” Presumably the stem-cell treatment in question is bone marrow transplantation, an adult stem-cell technique widely in use for decades, and one in no way threatened by any legal barriers or related to embryonic stem cells or cloning. Another ad shows a pediatrician saying stem cells could help his patients, but offering no details. Another shows an Alzheimer’s researcher saying “stem cell research offers the promise of cures” for “so many devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s disease,” but offers no evidence to counter the near consensus in the field that this simply is not so. Many of these disingenuous ads repeat the claim that the initiative would ban human cloning, and none of the ads mention that all stem-cell research is already legal in Missouri and there are no prospects for that changing, or that the referendum would not support any new research.
Many stem-cell scientists are uneasy about this kind of reckless hype and overselling, and are trying to bring coverage of the field down to earth, where the prospects for stem-cell cures for all that ails us are not what they used to be. And many blame non-scientific motives for it all. “It is true that Alzheimer’s is not a promising candidate for stem-cell therapies,” British stem-cell scientist Stephen Minger told the London Times, “but it was not scientists who suggested it was — that was all politics in the US driven by Nancy Reagan.”
Scientists are not so blameless, as the ads in the Show-Me State show, but “politics in the US” does indeed seem to lie at the heart of the Missouri stem-cell story. Beyond putting themselves above the law in Missouri, embryonic-stem-cell research advocates see an opportunity to have a relatively red state endorse embryo-destructive research and human cloning. Unlike California’s 2004 referendum, the Missouri initiative would not direct any new funds to the research or establish any new institution. It would simply allow advocates nationwide to say “even Missouri” supports embryo-destructive research and human cloning, so surely less conservative or less pro-life states should have no objection.
The initiative is a talking point in the larger campaign for human-cloning research. And that larger campaign itself seems increasingly to be a mere political ploy for advantage, rather than the future of medicine, as scientists discover alternatives to cloning that offer more promise both ethically and scientifically. Stem-cell pioneer James Thomson put it this way in an interview last month:
My personal bet is that so-called therapeutic cloning will not be therapeutically useful in terms of applying those cells for transplantation. It’s not that they couldn’t be theoretically. I think there’s no reason why the procedure won’t work. It’s more about cost and where the technology’s likely to go in the next 10 years or so. I could be wrong because again my colleagues disagree with me on this. But I believe that there ultimately will be other technologies to accomplish the same thing, that don’t require a human oocyte. It’s the cost of the human oocyte and the ethics of obtaining those oocytes in reasonable numbers.
Those “other technologies” that don’t require human eggs or embryos include new cell reprogramming techniques that could turn adult cells into embryonic stem cells without embryos (as teams at Harvard and more recently in Japan have shown), newly discovered germ-line stem cells that might possess the abilities of embryonic cells, and other emerging alternatives. They are still in development, to be sure, but most are further along in human experiments than somatic cell nuclear transfer, and they offer the promise of advancing stem-cell science without human cloning or the destruction of nascent life.
All of which should make the people of Missouri wonder just what they’re being asked to vote for and why. A vote for the state’s ballot initiative would be a vote for a constitutional right to clone, for super-legal status for stem-cell scientists and their employers, for making their state a prop in a political fight that has little to do with Missouri, and for hype and false hope for millions of patients who have been made pawns in that struggle.
A vote against the initiative, meanwhile, would not be a vote against any science, any technique, any ongoing or new research. It would be a vote against hypocrisy and deception, and a vote for keeping legislative options open as the facts change. The Show-Me State should not be duped.