Published in the San Fransisco Chronicle. In the annals of popular democracy, one of the strangest initiatives ever to make it to the ballot is the $3 billion bond known as Proposition 71. It is intended to sustain biotech researchers from the public purse while they pursue a project that private investors have already decided is worthless. And it is a project that nation after nation around the world has already declared to be a felony.
Four things warrant attention:
— First, we need to be told the truth about the initiative. It purports to be focused on the need for “stem-cell research” to be legal and funded in California. But stem-cell research is already legal and funded in California. That is true of adult stem-cell research, which raises no ethical problems and has already led to cures for what had been incurable diseases. It is true of embryonic stem-cell research, which raises ethical problems for many people (pro-choice as well as anti-abortion) because it involves destroying human embryos. It is even true of cloning, the mass manufacture of human embryos for experiments.
None of this is illegal in California. All of it can be funded by the state, if that’s what the state wants to do. In the case of adult stem cells, and some embryonic stem-cell research, it is now being funded by the federal government. Of course, all this research can also be funded by private resources.
— Second, we need to grasp the fact that this is all about cloning. It is California’s cloning proposition. Don’t be taken in by talk of the need for extra cell lines for research, or the fate of unwanted frozen embryos. The so- called “therapeutic cloning” idea is what has taken the media by storm, gripped the popular imagination, activated celebrities including the widow of the state’s most famous actor/politician, and offered that fragile and most precious quality to the sick and those who love them — hope.
The idea is disarmingly simple: The technique that cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996 can be used to clone sick people. The cloned embryo, in effect your twin, can be a source of stem cells that will regenerate your tissue, and cure whatever your degenerative disease may be. (In fact, animal cloning experiments have been remarkably unsuccessful, because the embryo stem cells have a nasty habit of causing tumors.)
— Third, we need to be clear about what’s happening outside California. Supporters of cloning for stem cells love to perpetuate the myth that their only opponents are crazy anti-abortion activists. That’s plainly a lie; there is no other word for it. If it were true, why has all human cloning — including exactly the kind of research that the proposition would have us fund — been prohibited in Canada, under federal law? Why did Australia do the same thing? Why in Germany (where they know a thing or two about unethical research) will it get you five years in jail? Why is France on the verge of a similar law? None of these countries is in the grip of anti-abortion conservatives. Why is momentum building for a global convention to ban cloning at the United Nations (it had 66 co-sponsors last time around)? Nation by nation, the civilized world is turning its back on the mass production of human embryos for destructive experimentation.
— Fourth: We need to grasp the proposition’s bizarre economics. It is being said that this vast investment will actually save health-care costs, as well as cure diseases. This claim does not hold up to logical scrutiny for three reasons: Key pro-cloning researchers have admitted this would take much longer than the five years after which repayment on the bond is scheduled; even if they worked, the one-on-one medications predicted will be hugely expensive; and if the sponsors of the initiative could promise just 10 percent of their claims, private money would be swamping the market. Anyone making such a claim in an IPO prospectus would do jail time. But the proposition is a prospectus to the people of California, and the combination of hype and hubris needs to be nailed. The one thing certain about the proposition is that it will pump billions of public dollars into the pockets of researchers and businesses.
But this is not a mere matter of opinion. California’s business community has already made up its mind. If it believed the hype of those behind the proposition, it would be pouring funds into the field in the expectation of reaping vast profits. Instead, it has already voted with its feet.
That is exactly what the people of California need to do in November. They need to resist this effort to railroad them into closing schools and cutting food-stamp programs while they featherbed researchers in privileged positions in which they have a constitutional right to pursue research that business won’t fund and legislatures don’t believe in.
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future; he has served as bioethics adviser to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations’ discussion of a cloning convention, although he writes in his personal capacity. Jennifer Lahl is national director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, based in Oakland.
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