For years, some of us have been saying that the issues raised by advances in biotechnology will dominate the 21st centurynot just because new technology is always fascinating, but also because they will become the key issues in our culture and our politics. Think of the culture war over abortion, and then think much, much bigger. We will move from taking human life to making and finally faking human lifeby design.
The cloning/stem-cell debates have been a forerunner of that enlarged culture war. Yet it's important to make some things clear. Those of us who would be seen as "social conservatives" are not Luddites. We are not opposed to technology. We may be more skeptical than some as to its benefits or its harmlessness, because we tend to take a Judeo-Christian view of human nature. It is flawed; humans can do wonderful things, but they can also do incredibly evil things, and new technology always gives us the power to do more than we could have before. Furthermore, because we are flawed and finite, our technologies are flawed. Space shuttles explode. Microsoft Windows crashes. My PDA rearranged my schedule one day. We all have our own stories.
At a conference in Washington recently, the Center for American Progress made a push for "progressive" bioethics and against "bioconservatives." This is curious, because one of the most striking facts of our time is that just as economic and social "conservatives" have disagreed on key biopolicy issues, so also "progressives" are thoroughly divided. Many of them side with "conservatives" on a wide range of bioethics issues, from cloning to germline (inheritable) changes to the need for reform in the patenting of human genes.
Part of the problem lies with BIO, the trade group of the biotechnology industry. Many of their efforts are estimable: Biotech will lead to cures for many diseases, and we will welcome them. But the organization, which brought together nearly 20,000 people at a conference in Chicago this April, has for obscure reasons decided to take sides in the great debate about embryonic stem-cell research and cloning.
There are many reasons why their decision is strange. For one thing, whatever hype we may read in the press, the private investment in embryonic stem-cell research is tiny, and stem cells do not feature on standard lists of "10 most promising bio developments." Moreover, Pharmathe far larger group that represents drug manufacturershas deliberately stayed out of the debate and takes no official line on the issue.
A recent Chicago Tribune article looked at the role of Jim Greenwood, the former congressman who was an aggressive supporter of cloning and embryonic stem-cell research when he was in the House and now runs BIO.
In his $650,000-a-year job Greenwood is as dogged in carrying out BIO's mission as he was for 12 years in the U.S. House representing Philadelphia's north suburbs.
Greenwood is unafraid to talk about BIO's support of embryonic stem-cell research, an issue so controversial that it could be pivotal in deciding close congressional races at a time when some political observers believe Republicans could lose control of the House or Senate.
"We're for it," Greenwood said of BIO's support of embryonic stem-cell research. "We pull no punches."
In contrast, the much larger drug lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, which includes the world's largest drugmakers as members, said it "does not have a position on stem-cell research and is not actively engaged on the issue."
Because BIO represents smaller companies, Greenwood said, it can be more effective on a variety of issues. "Unless they have a consensus, they do nothing," Greenwood said of PhRMA.
The stem cell issue created a national stir at the beginning of President Bush's first term when he prohibited future federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research beyond those cell lines that had already been established at that time.
Of course, like most press comment, this does not quite state the position accurately. Readers of Life Matters know well that President Bush liberalized the policy to permit funding for research on stem cells from embryos for the first timethe Clinton administration did not fund it at all, since the prohibition was in law.
An update on the Korean cloning hoax
According to the Tribune-Review, the University of Pittsburgh has done some serious thinking as they clean up the fallout of the Korean cloning fiasco, in which their own esteemed professor Gerald Schatten was closely involved.
The University of Pittsburgh's lax policies and disregard for federal guidelines allowed biologist Gerald Schatten to participate in one of the biggest scientific frauds in history, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review examination.
At issue is a Pitt-sanctioned collaboration between Schatten and Korean scientists headed by Hwang Woo-Suk in the controversial field of human embryonic stem-cell research.
The Tribune-Review uncovered basic flaws in the university's approach to supervising Schatten's research, and the article quotes many of the mainstream bioethics gurus in their critical observations on what happened. Of course, there is huge embarrassment in the pro-cloning world that not only did Hwang falsify his results, but a famed American scientist also signed onto his conclusions, however innocent of fraud Schatten may have been. There's no doubt that the madcap enthusiasm for "stem-cell research" (that is, the embryonic variety and especially the kind that involves cloning) played a huge part in fanning the flames of this fraud, in the U.S. as in Korea.
Meanwhile, women whose eggs were used in the Hwang experiments are suing, according to the English-language Korea Times, which has covered this story very thoroughly:
Two women who donated their eggs to now-disgraced cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk have filed a lawsuit against the state and two medical centers, claiming they had not been informed about potential risks posed by egg retrieval processes.
In the suit filed with the Seoul Central District Court Friday, the donors, including a 20-year-old identified as A, are each seeking 32 million won ($33,600) medical compensation against the state, local fertility clinic Mizmedi Hospital and the Hanyang University Medical Center.
The two hospitals collaborated with Hwang, a gene-scientist formerly employed by Seoul National University (SNU), in his studies on cloned human stem cells, recently exposed as fraudulent.
Civic groups, such as the Korea Women's Association United (KWAU) and the Lawyers for a Democratic Society (Minbyun), plan on providing consulting and financial support to the two throughout the trials.
As for Hwang, he is appealing against his firing by prestigious Seoul National Universityeven as the police investigate his activities and consider charging him with fraud or embezzlement.
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Previous Life Matters columns include:
Straight Talk from the Pope on the Biotech Century | The "anti-Genesis" of those who play God, and why the biotech business needs to take ethics seriously. (April 19, 2005)
Human Nature on Trial | Tomorrow's "godlike, massively intelligent machines." Plus: Our nanotech future and some good news on stem cells that really work. (April 12, 2006)
Outsourcing Birth: Let an Indian Woman Have Your Baby | Plus: Good news from Europe on stem-cell funding. (April 5, 2006)
The Abortion Agenda: South Dakota's Move in Context | Plus: The latest on the biopolicy agenda and some outrageous lies on stem cells. (March 30, 2006)
Our Cloning Friends, the Brits | The U.K. and disaffected American researchers lash out at U.S. cloning laws. (March 17, 2006)
The Truth, the Partial Truth, and Nothing but Evasions | How to sell unethical science. (March 2, 2006)
The Pursuit of Enhancement | The latest from Brave New Britain. (Feb. 22. 2006)
Poaching Eggs | The latest sad story from the Korean soap operaand a lack of Talent in Missouri (Feb. 17, 2006)
More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.