On March 13, a group of patients of suffering from various diseases descended upon Capitol Hill, lobbying their lawmakers to fund the therapies that had successfully treated them — therapies involving the use of adult stem- cells.
One of them, a Long Island woman receiving adult-stem-cell therapy for multiple myeloma, approached Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) and told him about the successful treatment she was receiving. According to two other witnesses to the conversation, Schumer told her he supports funding adult-stem-cell research, but added that he did not “share your religious views” and that he also embraces embryonic-stem-cell research.
“But Senator,” the woman replied. “Adult stem cells produce cures. Embryonic stem cells have never produced any cures.”
“Yes they have,” Schumer replied. “I’ve met with two patients that have been treated with embryonic stem cells.”
Schumer’s staff has not yet responded to inquiries on the clearly mistaken answer he gave. In fact, embryonic stem cells have never successfully treated any disease in humans, and human trials of such therapies are more than a decade away, because currently they tend to produce malignant tumors in animal test subjects.
Many writers have already questioned just how promising embryonic research is, given that the best science now suggests that it will never cure Alzheimer’s and it probably won’t cure autoimmune diseases such as juvenile diabetes. But the falsehoods that seem inevitably to accompany embryonic research as a political issue should themselves give voters pause. Why must the backers of this research invoke bad science and sow public confusion every time the issue appears in the public square? Schumer’s statement, even if it is just the result of innocent confusion or scientific ignorance, just is one falsehood among many.
Iowa Basics I do not use the word “falsehood” here to refer merely to differing philosophical views — even over such important questions as whether an embryo should be treated as a human being. Rather, proponents of embryonic-stem-cell research routinely make misleading and demonstrably false factual claims — about biology, for example, and about prospective embryonic-stem-cell treatments and the therapeutic human-cloning procedures they would require.
The lies go well beyond such fatuous statements as that of former Sen. John Edwards, during the 2004 presidential campaign, that increased federal research funding would make Christopher Reeve “get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”
The widespread use of even more specific falsehoods helped bring about the repeal of Iowa’s cloning ban last month. The 2002 ban had attached criminal penalties to the creation of human embryos through somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). Although backers of this procedure go out of their way to avoid calling it what it is, SCNT is the term used in every reputable science textbook to refer to a method of cloning — it is the same method that produced Dolly the sheep.
But as they did in Missouri in 2006 and in California in 2004, supporters of research cloning in Iowa denied that the cloning they planned to do was, in fact, cloning. They even told voters that they were banning cloning. In all three states, thanks to their efforts, the laws now allow cloning by SCNT, but require that clones be killed early on for their stem-cells and not be brought to term. The reason cloning is inseparable from embryonic-stem-cell research is that someday, if therapies are ever developed, patients will need to be cloned (and the clones destroyed at an early stage) in order to obtain the embryonic cells that will cure them.
Those who are claiming to embrace “science” over “politics” in this debate seem to understand this science only in political terms. And they are often less than scientific in the justifications they offer to their constituents.
Former Democratic governor Tom Vilsack, who had signed Iowa’s bipartisan cloning ban in the first place, began the campaign for its repeal with an enormous whopper in his 2006 State of the State address. At the time he signed the ban, he explained…
…we never dreamt that new treatments dependent upon such [nuclear cell] transplants [sic] would be developed so quickly. Well, they have been, and as a result we should revisit our ban on nuclear cell transplants. We should remove the restrictions and allow life-saving treatments to be administered to Iowans here in Iowa rather than forcing them to leave our state.
If there was any exodus of Iowans — perhaps to Illinois — in search of these “life-saving treatments,” it led only to disappointment. The treatments do not exist. It is hard even to guess where Vilsack got the idea to say such a thing, except that he was about to enter the 2008 presidential race and couldn’t find himself on the wrong side of the issue during the Democratic primaries.