Cons and Cults: Should politicians or scientists guide the debate over stem-cell research?

May 1, 2003

Cell

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan likens legislating stem-cell research to setting foreign policy according to the script of a Steven Segall movie. 

His theory is that most of what lawmakers know about cloning comes right out of pop culture, be it the Jurassic Park movies or the headlines generated by the outlandish claims of a cult-run company.

Like most of us, Caplan, who is director of the Penn Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, wants to see human cloning outlawed. But that’s where he draws the line. 

He says it’s dangerous to legislate the unknown. Even the best-briefed lawmakers know little about stem-cell research. For that matter, scientists don’t know much yet. 

But what little scientists have learned has led many to believe that embryonic stem cells could be used to produce cures for paralyzing spinal injuries, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and a plethora of other medical nightmares. So Caplan sees moral imperative for such research.

“You don’t want to block research to get someone out of their wheelchair or to prevent them from dying from Parkinson’s because of a flawed scientific argument made by con men, crazy people and cult figures.’’

Blocking research that could save lives is the risk inherent in efforts to legislate — rather than simply regulate — stem-cell research. 

Nevertheless, the U.S. House recently approved a measure that would outlaw not only reproductive cloning but cloning for medical research. The U.S. Senate hasn’t been so quick to jump on board. Here in Illinois, the House approved a measure to make stem-cell research legal. Several other states are considering this as well. 

Congress — or the Statehouse for that matter — simply isn’t an appropriate venue for the debate over stem-cell research. The law lumbers along at a slow pace and doesn’t respond well to change. But science is like quicksilver, ever-changing. 

Generally, lawmakers don’t get involved with the fate of medical research, anyway. Mainly, expert-staffed regulatory agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health or the Food and Drug Administration, choose which studies get funded. 

Congressional interest is unusual. Congress, notes Andrea Bonnicksen in Crafting a Cloning Policy: From Dolly to Stem Cells, has never seriously tried to ban technology aimed at assisting reproduction. “Especially not a pre-emptive ban on biomedical research still considered hypothetical for humans,” writes Bonnicksen, who is a political science professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. “Nor has Congress been much interested in limiting scientific study,” she contends, “because lawmakers have been wary of casting too wide a restrictive net.’’ 

The spiral toward legislating medical research began back in 1997 with the birth of a sheep named Dolly. When Scottish researcher Ian Wilmut announced that his team had cloned a mammal, cloning people no longer seemed out of the realm of possibility. Congress has been trying to outlaw human cloning ever since. 

Most Americans find the notion of human cloning unethical if not repugnant. So enacting a ban should have been simple. But a year after Dolly’s birth, a University of Wisconsin scientist isolated the embryonic stem cell, and potential medical benefits to cloning technol-ogy emerged. 

This advance also drew the politics of abortion into the mix. Some see embryonic cells as having the potential to become life. But Caplan says the point is moot because an embryo can’t be viable until it has been implanted in the womb. 

Further, he says, mainstream scientists are skeptical that humans could be cloned. “I would argue that an adult human being has a greater moral claim than an embryo in a dish. Many people believe cloning is possible. I don’t. Animal cloning has not been successful enough. Until that happens, human cloning is impossible. No one has made it work.” Yet congressional action aimed at banning stem-cell research that would peg the beginning of life to the nascent embryonic stage would be warmly welcomed by some who wish to overturn Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

In August 2001, President George W. Bush weighed in with his announcement that the federal government would consider funding only embryonic stem-cell research conducted with cell lines derived from those previously donated at in vitro fertilization clinics.

But the issue is complex and lives are at stake — no matter the perspective on life’s beginnings. These questions should be weighed by ethicists, scientists and doctors — not debated in the political arena where decisions are usually based on the art of the deal. There are no easy answers, which is why, as Caplan maintains, decisions about medical science, or specifically the morality of various types of embryonic stem-cell research, should be made on a case-by-case basis.

In the meantime, several states have banned cloning on their own, Dolly has died and Congress continues to struggle with the issue.

As Caplan notes, the inability of Congress to settle on whether to ban cloning or stem-cell research means the thin regulatory shell currently in place will have to suffice.

“A federal ban does nothing responsive. It simply takes it off the table,’’ says Caplan, who has testified before House and Senate committees on ethical issues surrounding cloning and stem-cell research.

One response to the situation Bonnicksen suggests is to fine-tune existing mechanisms for oversight of medical research and to strengthen existing regulatory entities that have a say over reproductive technologies, such as the Food and Drug Administration. “It makes sense to look at broadly defined policy rather than narrowly defined law.’’

She endorses beefed up regulation on cloning — with advice of the medical community — rather than legislated restrictions because “the creation of policy based on observation rather than speculation can avoid errors that arise when policy-makers from one decade presume that they can anticipate the state of science in the next.”

Meanwhile, private research goes on. Stanford University School of Medicine in California recently announced it had received an anonymous $12 million grant to fund a cancer/stem-cell research center. 

Further, Caplan notes, as other nations — including China, Singapore, India and Great Britain — move ahead with such research, the United States is losing its ability to set standards worldwide.

As Bonnicksen writes, “The United States can lead by example and procedure most effectively if it is a player.”

Illinois Issues, May 2003