Earlier this week, the deputy majority leader of the New Jersey general assembly, Neil Cohen, issued a “Dear Colleague” letter imploring support for a bill currently scheduled for a vote this coming Monday. Cohen wrote: “[T]he stem cell treatment will be needed in time of war, and civil disaster. Experts advise me that in the military context, stem cell treatment will be the method of healing severe wounds in the battlefield. In the context of civil tragedies, stem cell treatment must be available to the public for treatment of injuries sustained, such as lung and eye injury from gaseous attacks. Stem cell treatment should be part of a national health security system in New Jersey, and for our nation.”
National…security? Sounds pretty vital. Why don’t we all know about this? Why isn’t the president on top of this?
Well, actually, he is. It was in his State of the Union address at the start of this year.
You see, the bill Neil Cohen is pushing in New Jersey (A2840) is not a “stem-cell” bill. It is, as opposition activists have repeatedly clarified, a “clone-and-kill” bill. The legislation currently sitting in the New Jersey statehouse would allow human cloning, a.k.a “somatic cell nuclear transplantation” (even though its proponents say it would banhuman cloning).
The president, of course, has called for a federal ban on all human cloning. And his bioethics council–which includes those who both support and oppose cloning–defines “somatic cell nuclear transplantation” as the “transfer of the nucleus from a donor somatic cell into an enucleated egg to produce a cloned embryo.” Not surprisingly, that fact is not too well advertised.
Although research cloning is a matter of debate both nationally and globally, the New Jersey bill is more extreme than just about any other non-Raelian plan out there. Though it has been likened to a California law passed last year, the California ban has a 14-day limit on the lifespan of embryos created for scientific research. The New Jersey bill would let biotech firms experiment on clones up until birth. In fact, the legislative language defines the “cloning of a human being” as “the replication of a human individual by cultivating a cell with genetic material through the egg, embryo, fetal, and newborn stages into a new human individual.” In other words, it’s okay to clone as long as you kill.
The unsavory and unprecedented nature of the legislation doesn’t end there, as members of the president’s bioethics council pointed out earlier in the year in a letter to New Jersey governor James McGreevey. Writing in the Trenton Times in response to a misleading editorial, Marie Tasy of the New Jersey Right to Life Committee recently pointed out, “while the bill makes it illegal to buy or sell embryonic or fetal tissue for profit, it allows ‘reasonable payment’ for embryonic or cadaveric fetal tissue production, implantation, transplantation and preservation costs. This would authorize a commercial market in the sale of baby parts. To say the bill is extreme is an understatement.”
Further, despite the rhetoric from supporters of the bill claiming the legislation is a lifesaving, wartime necessity–including with not-terribly-instructive emotive ads: “Q: Why should you care about Stem Cell Research in New Jersey? A: Because someday it will help someone you love.”–proponents of the New Jersey cloning bill ignore alternatives to cloning embryos for sources of human stem cells including bone marrow, fat cells, placenta, skin cells, and umbilical cords. Never mind that the embryonic stem cells they tout are not the proven panacea advocates would have you believe they are.
This New Jersey bill is telling. Research-cloning (so-called “therapeutic cloning”) advocates routinely argue that they are only interested in research on early embryos–that there could be a 14-day cutoff. Of course, for those who believe that an embryo is a human life from the get-go, that’s no ideal. On the other hand, an argument could be made for the virtues of baby steps (versus deadlock–which in this case is no prohibition on the cloning of humans). But the New Jersey bill moots that option–it casts doubt on the willingness of the biotech industry to stop after 14 days.
PROF. GEORGE: So if there were promising lines of research that would require implantation, you would not be in favor of pursuing those lines of research?
MR. WERNER: Yes, that’s correct. Having said that, I will be fair and say I think that–No, I think that it’s fair to say that, you know, science advances, ethical thinking advances. We constantly are re-examining our views and our principles.
I think it’s okay for us to say we’ve said it throughout history with new technology. It’s okay to say, you know, this is something that’s troubling, but now, you know, umpteen years later we for some reason feel like, you know, we can re-explore whether that’s an appropriate limit. I will tell you that I have no view that, sure, we’re going to move the goal post. I would say our view is 14 days because the primitive streak seems like an appropriate boundary, and that’s where we are.
PROF. GEORGE: So for you that’s a principal limit.
CHAIRMAN KASS: For the time being.
MR. WERNER: Yeah.
PROF. GEORGE: Well, that’s the question.
MR. WERNER: Now. That’s correct. No, look. And you know, for what it’s worth, I understand that that’s frustrating, and that’s why I sort of hesitated to say it, but I do think that that’s where we are, and I don’t know that it’s appropriate to say that limits on scientific research should stay static over the course of decades as things change.
That boilerplate 14-day limit will be history, in New Jersey at least, if A2840 gets a nod from the assembly during next week’s lame-duck session–a dangerous precedent liable to have a domino effect nationally. Despite a fierce misinformation campaign the state over, groups like the New Jersey Right to Life Committee and the New Jersey Catholic Conference will continue to rally their troops throughout the weekend, to stop it. When the clone-and-kill bill passed the state senate last December, five Republicans voted for it–no doubt fearing the political fallout from opposing a bill Christopher Reeve testified in support of. And it’s hard to believe none of them will go to the vote untouched by biotech lobbying. Consider a not-so-small detail: One Republican county chair is a partner in a public-relations group that has flacked for one of the state biotech firms. In recent days, “Dear Colleague” faxes have included recycled material from Republican Utah senator Orrin Hatch and Nancy Reagan, who support federal legislation that would allow for “therapeutic cloning”; neither has supported the expansive New Jersey bill explicitly, however. No doubt that nuance is easily lost in the heat of the session-close ruckus on a debate that has now dragged on for over a year in the New Jersey statehouse.
The passage of New Jersey’s clone-and-kill bill, which the governor is expected to sign, would mark a milestone–and one that will be hard to roll back, especially when you consider the word games being played, ones that are not exclusive to Jersey. Do New Jersey state legislators know what this bill is about? Does the governor? Do New Jerseyans?
New Jersey assemblymen can be reached here, by the way.