Polling yesterday and stem cell politics earlier in the week - so now some political analysis before I drop the subject for more constructive topics. As a reminder (since no-one out there seems to be talking about it), here is why embryonic stem cell research is important:
1) The aim of stem cell research is to produce a biological repair kit, tools that will allow age- and illness-damaged tissue to be repaired or replaced. These tools, coupled with effective cancer therapies, will greatly extend our healthy life spans and bring cures for all the most common degenerative diseases.
2) It is probably the case that scientists would eventually make as much progress using only adult stem cells - several extra intervening steps would be required, but it is conceptually possible. It is widely agreed that progress towards a full biological repair kit would be much faster due to embryonic stem cell research.
3) Time matters a great deal - more than 100,000 lives are lost worldwide each and every day precisely because we don't have a biological repair kit complete with therapies for the most common age-related conditions. There simply is no sane counterargument to this point. Speed is of the essence.
I don't condone all of the Democrats' political tactics, and have condemned many of them here. But let's face it, all of this is typical politics, and the GOP has no record for honesty on embryonic stem cell research.
Conservatives exaggerate the potential benefits of adult stem cell research at least as much as Democrats exaggerate the potential benefits of embyronic stem cell research--probably far more. And if Democrats have misrepresented Bush's policy, it's also worth pointing out that that policy itself relied on a misrepresentation of the number of available lines. Finally, both sides have and will continue to use polling to their advantage. There are no saints here.
John Leo, a conservative columnist, echoes all the same tropes that we've heard so often lately: Democrats are being dishonest about an embryonic stem cell research "ban"; they're promising the moon; they're hyping Alzheimer's cures; they're ignoring adult stem cells, yada yada. Interestingly, few of these arguments really arose in full force until after Ron Reagan delivered his Democratic National Convention speech--they are, clearly, the arguments of a conservative movement on the defensive.
But let me add a few additional comments. Leo gets pretty dishonest (or perhaps just uninformed) on the money front ... Actually, everything I've heard suggests that most pharaceutical/biotechs are scared to move into this field because of the politics. Granted, there are exceptions like Geron and Advanced Cell Technology. On the "state governments" front, meanwhile, I'm not aware that money is "pouring in"--the California intiative has not passed yet. So what state is Leo talking about--New Jersey perhaps? Frankly, I don't think he knows what he's talking about.
Finally, Leo speaks of the "anti-religious thread of the Democratic stem cell campaign." This is, of course, too funny for words. If you oppose the moral views of religious conservatives then you're anti-religious? Once again, it seems that those accusing the Democrats of spin and dishonesty on embryonic stem cell research have no particular high ground, and in fact, need to look in the mirror.
A piece at Wired today offers some more thoughts on this topic:
United States presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) is in favor of cloning.
It's a true statement, and shocking, if you don't know that there are two different types of cloning. Both use the same technique, but with different goals. Therapeutic cloning is the process of creating an embryo and extracting stem cells before they've become specific cell types while the embryo is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. The other kind of cloning is the stuff of Raelian mythology -- reproductive cloning resulting in cloned babies.
Kerry is not alone in his support for therapeutic cloning. The National Academy of Sciences (the body put in place to advise the federal government on matters of science and policy), the American Medical Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science all support therapeutic cloning.
But the yuck factor associated with cloning could hurt Kerry if his campaign isn't proactive about explaining what exactly the science involves.
"The Republicans are trying to link Kerry to the word 'cloning,'" said Michael West, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, a company that has created early cloned embryos in hopes of developing medical treatments. "My honest reaction to all this is simply shame. The United Kingdom had a rational (although sometimes heated) debate about (embryonic stem) cells and the use of cloning in medicine, and came out with careful guidelines to allow potentially lifesaving research to move forward. In the U.S., we are using this area of medical research as a political football, trying to win one for the Gipper."
The winner-takes-all politics of a modern representative democracy lead to these wasteful, dishonest battles over every bone of contention. There are better ways of doing things - such as decentralized, pluralist societies, even that imperfect example of the type envisaged by the Founders of the US - but don't hold your breath waiting for those in power to stop the march towards increasing centralization and control.