Politics & Policy

Celling a Strategy

Opposition to embryo-destroying research is not a losing issue. At least it shouldn't be.

“How can you side with those people?”

In 2002, a paralyzed research advocate who actively supports embryonic-stem-cell and human-cloning research asked me this question. By “those” people she meant Christians, conservatives, and pro-life groups.

“It’s simple,” I said. “Why is it in our interest to sit in these wheelchairs for the rest of our lives so science can puzzle over safety problems linked to embryonic stem cells and human cloning, while ignoring the cells that nature designed for the treatments we need?”

In the discussion that followed I explained why embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are inferior to adult stem cells or cord blood for every medical condition commonly used to justify massive public funding of ESC research and human cloning. I offered head-to-head peer-reviewed research studies to support my case. With nothing left to cling to, my former friend slammed the door on the discussion:

“Well…I support science!” she said with self-righteous anger.

“I support cures,” I replied.

An Alliance in Confusion

For practical reasons based on science, in 2002 I noticed a symbiosis between pro-life stem-cell policies and realistic “pro-cures” research. More than this, I realized that pro-life efforts to keep publicly funded science from being diverted for decades towards ESC and human cloning were absolutely vital if countless millions with chronic diseases or disabilities stood a chance of seeing their hopes fulfilled. I little suspected that ethical and practical research directions could split over a lost election.

California voters approved Proposition 71 in 2004 by an 18.2-point margin, thus agreeing to provide three billion dollars for ESC and human-cloning research in exchange for extremely speculative “promises” of miracle cures.

Within three weeks of the ’04 elections, despite Republicans winning control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House, religious and pro-life representatives offered public support for “ethical” ESC research through Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT), a modified form of cloning. Silencing specific genes prior to creating cloned embryos, they said, might produce morally acceptable “embryo-like” artifacts for research uses.

As early as 2002, Stanford’s Bill Hurlbut, M.D., a member of the president’s Council of Bioethics, proposed ANT as a solution to the nation’s stem-cell debates. But pro-life and religious leaders were unconvinced. However, being steamrolled at the polls by a media/celebrity campaign to promote Proposition 71 may have cast “ethical” cloning in a favorable light.

Two months before the ’04 elections, California’s Catholic bishops had issued a statement opposing Proposition 71. Nevertheless, CNN exit polls reported that 63 percent of Catholic voters voted Yes to Proposition 71. Fifty percent of Protestant voters and 36 percent of Republican voters supported the pro-cloning amendment. Conservatives represented the most unified opposition to Proposition 71, with 68 percent of conservative voters voting No. (Seventy-five percent of church-going conservatives opposed the ballot amendment.)

Proposals to look for ethical sources of embryonic stem cells eventually led to S. 2754, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act of 2006, which overwhelmingly passed the Senate but stalled in the House. However, the search for compromise solutions to the moral debates over embryonic stem cell spawned dissention among opponents to ESCs and human cloning at a crucial political crossroads when unity was sorely needed.

Patients who had previously agreed with pro-life views that embryonic-stem-cell research and human cloning made little therapeutic sense suddenly found their allies promoting “moral” forms of both. Women concerned over research potentials for exploiting women for their eggs were disturbed to learn that leading alternative ESC proposals — ANT and OAR, Oocyte (Egg)-Assisted Reprogramming — also required their eggs. Some in the pro-life movement felt that transferring modified human genetic material into human eggs would make defective human embryos rather than non-human embryo-like artifacts, and therefore would not be a moral solution.

In the recent midterm elections, Republicans lost control of the House and Senate. Claiming stem cells as a “wedge” issue, Democrats won key elections in Missouri, Maryland, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Missouri voters approved Amendment 2, a ballot amendment that makes human cloning a constitutional right in Missouri. These results apparently confirmed Robert Novak’s warning in Human Events that stem cells represent a no-win issue for Republicans. The pro-life and pro-cures alliance seems to be headed for darker days.

A Glimmer of Light from the Heartland

But “Republicans lost the election despite their pro-life position, not because of it,” says Richard Doerflinger, director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Catholic Bishops.

A closer look at the numbers supports this assertion.

According to Fox News exit polls, 25 percent of Missouri voters felt that stem cells were “extremely important” in choosing a U.S. senator. Of these, 20 percent more picked Jim Talent over Claire McCaskill. Seventy-nine percent of Talent voters said they do not approve of the federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research. Controversial pro-ES ads by actor Michael J. Fox did McCaskill more harm than good, with 18 percent of Missouri voters claiming they were less likely to vote for her because of the advertisement, while only 7 percent said the reverse.

National exit polls identified political corruption and scandals, the war in Iraq, the economy, and abortion as primary voter concerns. Stem cells were barely a factor.

“Other issues predominated in the election.” Doerflinger says. “On the specific issue of embryonic-stem-cell research I don’t think there was a consistent trend. Some Republicans who supported federal funding of ESC research lost; some Democrats who have said they are against it won; and Republicans who strongly oppose it and lost did not lose by wider margins than other Republicans.”

Comparing pre-election polls and election results between California’s Proposition 71 and Missouri’s Amendment 2 reveals striking contrasts.

Two weeks before the ’02 elections, Californians supporting Proposition 71 outnumbered its opponents by 11 percent. Three days before the election this margin grew to 17 percent. At the polls Proposition 71 was approved by an 18.2 percent margin. In Missouri, two weeks before the election Amendment 2’s supporters led by 11 percent. Yet its margin of approval was slightly over 1 percent.

“The Missouri groups who opposed Amendment 2 were fighting a 30 million dollar ad campaign with three million dollars and the truth,” says Dorinda C. Bordlee, executive director and senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, a public-interest law firm that advocates for human rights from beginning to end.

With far less funds to draw on than Amendment 2’s promoters, the Missourians Against Human Cloning coalition launched their own ad campaign two weeks prior to the election.

“The blatantly deceptive legalese throughout Amendment 2 was shameless,” says Nikolas T. Nikas, BDF president and general counsel. “While claiming to ban human cloning, the five-page amendment made it a constitutional right. Under a pretext of ‘protecting’ the public’s access to cures, the amendment ‘protects’ the right of scientists to clone human embryos for destructive experiments that are both unethical and ineffective.”

“Missouri now has a constitution that makes it a right for cloners to exploit cash-strapped women for their eggs,” continues Nikas, “including college girls and low-income women. While its promoters claimed that that Amendment 2 would not require state funding, its provisions clear the way for mandatory tax funding to institutions that engage in human cloning experiments. When citizens were educated about these deceptions, support for Amendment 2 started dropping like a rock.”

Celling Spin

This September, Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technologies claimed in the journal Nature to have established a “proof of principle” that embryonic-stem-cell lines could be produced by taking a single cell from an embryo without killing it. In a Nature podcast on August 23 Lanza said: “What we have done, for the first time, is to actually create human embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo itself.”

ACT’s stock price briefly soared after Lanza’s claims. Since then, however, a very different picture has emerged — one where all of the embryos were destroyed in these experiments.

LifeNews.com, which started off the questioning of the ACT claim, now reports: “The CEO of Advanced Cell Technologies sent LifeNews.com a heated letter late Wednesday threatening the news service if it didn’t stop reporting the truth about its research.”

Last month, KRCG Television in Jefferson City, Missouri, was threatened by a pro-biotech coalition with legal action if it continued to run ads paid for by the Life Communications Fund — ads that revealed Amendment 2’s purported ban on human cloning would actually make human cloning a constitutional right in Missouri.

This July, representatives of the Stowers Institute — which promoted Missouri’s Amendment 2 — targeted biologist David Prentice, (in a letter to the journal Science) for publicly pointing out that 65 human medical conditions are being treated with adult stem cells or cord blood, whereas ESCs are treating none. While this accusation falsely represented Prentice’s statements, if anything Prentice understates the facts.

British researchers recently created human liver tissue in a petri dish from cord blood stem cells. Commenting on this breakthrough, Investor’s Business Daily said, “Remember, you read it here first. In fact, this might be the only place you’ve read it, given the mainstream media’s blackout of any successes resulting from non-embryonic stem cell research.”

Upon inspection, it certainly seems like those pushing us to accept and pay for embryonic-stem-cell research and human cloning — research directions that prudent investors avoid — are afraid lest the public learn their moral, financial, and practical truths. In Missouri, the truth almost won.

“If the ad campaign could have run just a little longer…” Bordlee muses. “It’s so frustrating to think that thousands may have voted in favor of Amendment 2 who honestly believed they were supporting a legal ban on all human cloning.”

A United Front Going into 2008

As happened after the passing of California’s Proposition 71, the recent midterm results are likely to cause conservative, Republican, and pro-life leaders to reconsider their positions on stem cells.

Pro-life leaders should certainly support ethical ESC research — if it’s possible — over destroying human embryos. However, making ethical ESC solutions a political priority makes little sense. The biotech industry won’t accept ethical restrictions in line with pro-life values unless forced by meaningful legislation, such as the Brownback-Landrieu Human Cloning Prohibition Act (S. 658). Ethical biotech legislation, however, has little chance of passing in a Democrat-controlled congress.

Two conservative stem-cell strategies offer real potentials for derailing the ESC and human cloning basic-research gravy train.

First, the public must be told the moral, financial, and practical truths about this research — the strategy effectively (and almost successfully) used by the Missourians Against Human Cloning coalition. When ESCs and human cloning are hyped with lies and frauds, call the lies and frauds by their name. When the motive for the deceptions is money, expose it. The public might be confused by scientific double talk, but it understands lies, frauds, and self-serving financial interests.

The pro-life movement needs to offer its political and public-relations support to research efforts aimed at expanding clinical uses of adult stem cells and cord blood. When the NIH refuses to fund credible clinical trials using adult stem cells or cord blood to save Americans from suffering from stroke, spinal cord injury, ALS, diabetes, or Parkinson’s Disease, the public needs to hear of it. If Americans can be shown that their health is being sacrificed, that their hopes are being exploited, and their trust has been betrayed to promote biotech financial goals, stem cell issues will become conservative and pro-life political strengths, rather than weaknesses.

In urging conservatives to take a hard-line approach to stem cells issues it might be said that I’m being selfish — that I suggest this course because I hope to walk again, because I want countless millions with diseases and disabilities to see their hopes fulfilled, because I don’t want others to needlessly suffer. If anyone were to say that, he’d be right.

James Kelly, who was paralyzed in a 1997 auto accident, Kelly directs the Cures1st Foundation, Inc., which promotes the effective use of public and nonprofit research resources.

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