The Corner

Chris Murphy and the Audacity of Stem-Cell Hype

In Sunday’s debate between the two contenders for the Senate seat that Joe Lieberman is vacating, Democratic candidate representative Chris Murphy touted his support for human embryonic-stem-cell research. “In the state legislature,” Murphy said, “I passed Connecticut’s stem-cell law, which is saving lives and putting people to work.” As a Connecticut state senator, Murphy authored the state’s 2005 Stem Cell Investment Act, a law that commits $100 million from the state’s coffers to be spent over ten years on human stem-cell research projects — including funding the creation of new lines of embryonic stem cells, an act that requires the destruction of human embryos. (The law thus can be seen as going even farther than the permissive policy that President Obama has instituted at the federal level.) The Connecticut law also claims to ban “the cloning of human beings,” but it deceptively defines human cloning not as the creation of a cloned human embryo, but as “permitting” such an embryo “to develop after gastrulation [an event that occurs after fourteen days of growth] commences” — in other words, scientists can create cloned embryos, but state law would require that they be destroyed.

What does the Constitution State have to show for its support for the destruction of human life? Is Representative Murphy right that the law is “putting people to work”? Well, sure, when government spends that much money, people usually do get put to work. According to a 2011 report on the state’s stem-cell research program, the $59 million that Connecticut had spent so far had “fully or partially” supported just under 200 jobs. (The word “partially” is a clue that the figure is inflated.) As for Murphy’s claim that the law has been saving lives, there have been no embryonic-stem-cell-based therapies from Connecticut, or from anywhere else, that have thus far come close to saving any lives. In fact, there is only a single embryonic-stem-cell-based treatment that has even reached the earliest stages of clinical trials (a therapy for retinal degeneration); the only other clinical trial (a therapy for spinal injury) was abandoned in 2011. The University of Connecticut, meanwhile, has used state funds to create four human embryonic-stem-cell lines by destroying human embryos — lines that now receive federal funding under the Obama policy, but that are deemed unsuitable for being “transplanted into a human being.”

Representative Murphy’s stem-cell rhetoric in Sunday’s debate echoesthe heated claims made by advocates during earlier political fights over stem-cell research. As a representative for Connecticut in 2007, Murphy trotted out the absurd claim that “100 million Americans” needed human embryonic-stem-cell research to save them from “life-threatening disease” — a figure that was obviously false even at the time. Exaggerations and distortions about the potential of stem-cell research may have seemed plausible to the American people five or ten years ago, when the field was young and its possibilities seemed open-ended. Today, 14 years after human embryonic stem cells were first discovered, it should be clear that the early claims about the potential of embryonic-stem-cell research were all too often just so much hype, and that medical miracles will not simply follow from moral compromises over the value of human life.

— Brendan Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.

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