In both the United States and Australia, this week brought great disappointment for opponents of human cloning. The issue was just a footnote to the American mid-term elections which swept the Republicans from power in Congress. But in Missouri and several other states it swung votes. In Canberra the Federal Senate passed a bill by a narrow margin which will probably lead to the legalisation of therapeutic cloning in the near future.
Missouri's battle over "Amendment 2" was widely reported. Supporters of therapeutic cloning were backing an amendment to the state constitution which bullet-proofs it against legislative tampering. About US$28 million was poured into advertisements, most of it donated by billionaire Jim Stowers, who has also funded a major medical institute in Kansas City. Opponents were outspent by at least 10 to 1. The amount of money spent by Stowers dwarfed the sums spent in campaigns for governor and the Senate.
The authors of a forthcoming book, Stem Cell Research: Promise and Politics, have analysed the election results. They report that four out of six Senate candidates who campaigned prominently in support of stem cell research were elected. In three gubernatorial races, stem cell research was a prominent feature of the campaign and all three supporters won. In Wisconsin, incumbent Governor Jim Doyle made it a central plank in his campaign and he still won by a margin of 53 per cent to 45 per cent.
Why has it proved so difficult to persuade voters that creating human embryos and destroying them for their stem cells is both unscientific and unethical? The case against it has logic, ethics and science on its side. The embryo, no matter how small it is, is clearly a human being. The world's most famous stem cell researcher, South Korean Hwang Woo-suk, faked his results and defrauded his government. There have been no clinical successes with the treatment. Promising ethical alternatives are available which have worked in clinical trials. And, some scientists claim, the basic science of embryonic stem cells suggests that they will never, ever work anyway. With drawbacks like these, a business seeking investors would fail. Why, then, do mainstream voters support it?
Religious bias is one reason. Whether or not to use embryonic stem cells is basically an ethical and human rights issue, despite the fact that there are well-founded scientific and financial reasons for scepticism. Consequently the churches weigh in, especially the Catholic Church, even though only reason, not faith, is required to see that a tiny clump of cells as big as a full stop (or period) is still a human being. In the eyes of some voters, this has tainted the issue as another case of superstition hobbling progress.
Another is three decades of abortion and two decades of in vitro fertilisation. Millions of voters have already acted on the presumption that a foetus, let alone an embryo, does not deserve the protection of the law. It would be inconsistent for them to support life in a Petri dish when they haven't supported it in the womb. No doubt, too, the views many legislators have been shaped by their own experiences. John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in the 2004 election, and his wife Elizabeth had two IVF children, probably with donated eggs. In Australia, coinciding with the vote on therapeutic cloning, a leading opposition Senator revealed that he and his wife had organised donor eggs and a surrogate mother to create their newborn child. They even had to cross borders to do it because it was illegal in the state which he represents in Parliament. The response of the Federal Attorney-General was to propose a change in the law to legalise surrogacy throughout the country.
But surely the main reason for growing support for this technology is baby-boomers' obsession with their health. Embryonic stem cell science has been surfing an unstoppable tsunami of desperate hope. Its supporters have even managed to frame their lack of clinical success as an argument in their favour. If only we had the resources, they argue, then we would surely deliver the goods. Significantly, the disease which was most often cited in campaign advertisements was Parkinson's disease, which is mostly an ailment of the elderly. Alzheimer's is often mentioned, as well, even though it is too complex to be cured with stem cells. Nonetheless, one of the most persuasive voices in favour of stem cell research is that of former First lady Nancy Reagan. Somehow she has been conned into believing that embryos could have saved her husband from the ravages of Alzheimer's. She was speaking for millions of baby-boomers — about 28 per cent of all Americans — a couple of years ago in a widely-reported speech:
"Science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers that for so long have been beyond our grasp. I just don’t see how we can turn our backs on this. We have lost so much time already. I just really can’t bear to lose any more."
This year American will spend US$14 billion to rejuvenate themselves with cosmetic surgery. If they are willing to spend this much on a war on wrinkles, is it any surprise that they do not scruple to approve destructive embryo research?
Unfortunately, they may live long enough to regret it.
Here's why. Every policy decision needs some sort of ethical rationale. If the 21st Century is going to be the century of biotechnology, we can expect many more ethical dilemmas. When voters and legislators voted for therapeutic cloning, they helped to enshrine utilitarianism as the national bioethical philosophy. In search of guidance, future voters, judges and legislators will follow the principles that steered this year's voters towards therapeutic cloning: that public health trumps human rights, that consciousness determines humanity, that financial gain justifies the destruction of human life.
One of the chief bioethical questions to be faced over the next 30 years will be how to deal with the millions of frail and senile baby boomers who will be taking up expensive beds in nursing homes. The same rationale which underpins therapeutic cloning will also justify euthanasia of the elderly. It will even justify experimenting on Alzheimer's patients without their consent. Bioethicists are already constructing arguments to make this possible. In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, for instance, an academic contended that patients in a "permanent vegetative state" would be useful subjects for medical experiments to investigate the long-term effects of transplanting animal organs.
"Those who are in a PVS will not ever wake up, they feel no pain or discomfort and have no continuing interest in their own survival… these patients must also have a right to risk that life for the common good… The patients will not be able to have children and have no capacity for movement, so that their possible confinement does not violate the interest that underpins the right to free movement… Also, no risk of withdrawal of consent exists."
Sound familiar? They are basically the same arguments which were rolled out to justify the legalisation of therapeutic cloning in order to keep baby-booomers healthy. In a few years' time, it is all but certain that they will be recycled as a justification for killing them when they fall ill.
Bad decisions were made this week, decisions which will come back to haunt us.
Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.