Digging Themselves a Hole

Posted by Jesse Reynolds July 15, 2008
Biopolitical Times
from Flickr Creative Commons user ratterrell

In the wake of new methods of deriving fully potent stem cells without destroying embryos, researchers and advocates appear to be falling into two camps. One group not only is open to cellular reprogramming (also known as induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS), but also praises its potential. Although they support and sometimes practice embryonic stem cell research, some also recognize concerns about the moral status of the embryo, even if they don't share these concerns.

The other group of embryonic stem cell researchers and advocates, however, seems to feel threatened by the new method. After all, many of them owe their positions of authority, prominence, and funding to the ongoing controversy and political stalemate. A recent statement from the governing board of the California stem cell research program indicates it is among this latter camp.

The letter describes the board's opposition to a state Senate bill that would slightly modify the law governing the agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Proposition 71 [PDF], which created the CIRM, calls for the state agency to prioritize stem cell research that the federal government neglects. However, it can fund any biomedical research if a two-thirds supermajority of its grants review working group approves. The current Senate bill would lower that bar to a simple majority.

This would not restrict the CIRM in any way. If anything, the bill simply gives the CIRM more flexibility. Considering that the grants working group generally operates by consensus, that the governing board must approve all grants, and that the CIRM currently generously supports non-embryonic stem cell research, the amendment would have zero practical impact.

Nevertheless, the board worked itself into histrionics over any concession to the development of alternatives:

[T]he proposed amendment to Proposition 71 would send the wrong message to Californians and to the nation at large. It would also thwart the will of the more than seven million Californians who voted for Proposition 71 in order to address the federal funding gap for human embryonic stem cell research, a gap that continues to exist to this day. By removing the two-thirds vote requirement, the amendment would undermine the very purpose of Proposition 71 – to provide a priority for funding human embryonic stem cell research. [Italics mine]

Embryonic stem cell research is a means, not an end. The goal is to reduce human suffering. If this can be done as well - or potentially better - with a method that does not antagonize a large portion of the population - even if I do not share their concerns - then all the better.

Some embryonic stem cell research advocates seem to be affected by a bunker mentality. Unfortunately, they are creating the impression that they are now more focused on belittling alternatives than on developing therapies. Rhetorically, they are digging themselves into an ever deeper hole.