Politics & Policy

Nascent Falsehood

If embryonic research is so promising, why do its backers need to lie?

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.

The Democratic takeover of Iowa’s state legislature in the 2006 election opened the way to the cloning ban’s eventual repeal, which even then came only by the narrowest of margins. As the debate in Iowa proceeded, several legislators who supported the legalization of cloning for research purposes sent letters to their constituents that blatantly misconstrued or obfuscated what it was they were doing.

State House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D.) wrote a constituent with the following concise explanation:

The bill would allow research that leads to the following; allowing a nucleus from one of these billions of cells (taken from the skin or an eyelash or a fingernail for example) from a specific donor in need of medical treatment——- and then to be transferred to a receptor cell where…in a Petrie dish, cells that exactly match that particular donor are then extracted.

McCarthy wrote that ellipsis in the original in order to skip over the important part, in which the “receptor cell” (a human egg whose nucleus has been removed) receives the new nucleus and begins dividing and developing into a baby because it is then a cloned human embryo. McCarthy went on in the e-mail to assert that scientists have already found from animal experiments that the embryonic cells “can be used to create replacement livers or hearts” for sick patients — which is also false.

Proponents of repealing the cloning ban also tried to assert that they were not producing embryos. State Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) wrote to a constituent that

somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is what this legislation would permit, authorizes the creation of embryonic stem cell lines, which are not even close to actual embryos. There is no sperm involved in somatic cell nuclear transfer, so there can be no embryo.

No embryo? How can one possibly derive “embryonic stem cell lines” without embryos, let alone without “anything close to actual embryos,” whatever that means?

The idea that “no sperm” translates to “no embryo” is laughable from a scientific perspective — the whole idea of cloning is that one can produce an embryo without fertilization. But Murphy’s confused biology does not just reflect the mistaken notions of one state representative — it has become a common scientific fallacy, turning up in a Joplin, Mo. Globe editorial that denies SCNT is cloning or that it produces embryos, on the grounds that SCNT “does not use fertilized eggs.” More frightening, two actual scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who should know better, have passed along the same lie in order to prevent their state from banning human cloning. 

Even James Thompson, the first scientist to isolate and culture embryonic stem cells, scoffed in a 2005 interview at the idea that there was “no embryo” involved in SCNT. “If you create an embryo by nuclear transfer, and you give it to somebody who didn’t know where it came from, there would be no test you could do on that embryo to say where it came from,” he said. “…[Y]ou’re creating an embryo. If you try to define it away, you’re being disingenuous.”

The strangest tale of all, though, came from state Rep. Brian Quick (D.), whose vote was the deciding one in Iowa’s state House last month. (The bill to allow cloning actually received 52 votes, one more than it needed, because another member intended to vote “no” but accidentally voted “yes.”) Quick, a Catholic who campaigned for office as a pro-lifer, had even been part of the strategy sessions with Iowa Right to Life Committee lobbyist Kim Lehman. She says that he had offered to help bring other Democrats over to vote against repealing the cloning ban. But on the day of the vote, Lehman said, he reversed himself completely.

“He came out just minutes before the vote and said to me that he didn’t want to see embryos that were going to be thrown away anyway to not be used for research,” said Lehman.

Quick did not return my phone calls after the vote, either to his office or his home. But a quick reading of the bill he helped pass reveals that it had absolutely nothing to do with so-called “surplus” embryos.

“I told him that this bill creates embryos — it’s not a left-over embryo issue here,” she said. “He either thought I was wrong or misled, or he deliberately chose that as his excuse.”

The moral of the story is that those who claim to be on the side of “science” and “reason” are not necessarily wedded to either one when it comes to the politics of embryonic research. Voters in other states should bear this in mind when this bandwagon comes to their towns.


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