Human Exceptionalism

Embryonic Stem Cell Debate Now Primarily About Human Cloning

Bioethicists Art Caplan and Glenn McGee push for full federal funding of human cloning research in this opinion column. As is usual for articles such as this, the bioethicists claim, “A clear majority of Americans favor embryonic stem cell research. Yet there are no meaningful federal funds for such research.” First, clear majorities oppose therapeutic human cloning, as the Virginia Commonwealth University poll I blogged about recently demonstrates. Majorities only support ESCR if the embryos destroyed are leftover from IVF and are going to be discarded anyway. Second, funding for cloning research is barred by the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits federal money being spent to support research that destroys human embryos. The Dickey Amendment has been passed every year since 1996, and signed by both Presidents Clinton and Bush. Third, there are no federal proposals that I know of to fund therapeutic cloning, only ESCR using leftover IVF embryos.

The bioethicists also claim that the dreaded issue of women being exploited for their eggs would be somehow more ethically handled in the U.S. than it was by Woo-Suk Hwang. Perhaps. But we have had sufficient research protocol ethical breaches here to cast great doubt on this assertion–including one involving Caplan that led to the death of a human subject in a gene therapy experiment. (The lawsuit filed by the parents of the dead young man was settled confidentially, so we will never know the full details.)

If Caplan and McGee want to get exorcised over a lapse in biotech funding, they should be shouting from the rooftops against those ESCR-supporting United States Senators who are thwarting a federal proposal to federally support an umbilical cord blood stem cell bank. (The senators, hiding behind their right to unanimity, are holding the bill hostage to overturning Bush’s ESCR funding restrictions.) These senators like to ooze compassion in public about regenerative medicine, but are more than willing to secretly hold up proven treatments to gain a political advantage. I will be writing more about this in coming weeks.

Inexcusably, Caplan and McGee claim that last April Hwang “held a news conference at which a stem cell research subject walked after having been bedridden for 19 years.” This is so disingenuous. The researcher wasn’t Hwang. And the stem cells in question came from umbilical cord blood, not cloned or natural embryos.

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