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18 Oct 2004 00:00
There was both a tragic and a timely element in the way that last week’s death of the Hollywood actor Christopher Reeve—best known for his leading role in the Superman films—has focused attention on a topic on which he became an ardent campaigner after being paralysed in a riding accident: the use of embryonic stem cells in research. His death coincided with two heated political debates around the issue.
In the United States, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has pushed the issue of stem-cell research to the front of his campaign agenda.
But it seems to be a deliberate attempt to paint himself as a moderate pragmatist—in favour of both science and medical research (while not ignoring the need for an ethical commitment behind both)—and to portray his opponent as a conservative ideologue.
A similar battlefront will open up on the international stage later this week when—for the third time in as many years—the member states of the United Nations will discuss introducing a global ban on all forms of human cloning.
Included in such a ban would be the use of human embryos as a source of stem cells, the procedure strongly endorsed by Kerry—and equally strongly opposed by Bush.
Each side of both debates agrees that trying to use cloning to produce complete human beings, or so-called reproductive cloning, should not be permitted.
In this area, ethical concerns about the implications of such a practice are reinforced by warnings from scientists of the medical risks involved, as well as the high cost in human lives and suffering that even an experimental programme of reproductive cloning is likely to inflict.
However, on so-called therapeutic cloning to tackle problems of disease, the two sides could not be further apart.
Ironically, if opponents to therapeutic cloning prevail in their attempts to have this included in a global treaty, it would be a victory for just the type of religious and philosophical intolerance that the US claims it is trying to abolish in its self-appointed role as an international police officer. In such circumstances, no treaty would be preferable to a bad one.
The issues at stake
Unlike many topics at the complex interface between science and politics, the key issues in the cloning debate are relatively straightforward. Proponents of the use of stem cells taken from human embryos argue that, in principle, these could eventually be used as replacement human tissue in the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as damage to the central nervous system.
This is because taking stem cells from embryos based on cells of the patient being treated—hence the cloning element—means the risk of rejection is substantially lowered. The cells share the same genetic make-up.
Critics of the research argue that even though the embryo from which the stem cells are taken has been fertilised for less than 14 days—and hence is still a bundle of undifferentiated cells—it should be considered a human being, with full human rights. Since extracting the cells makes the embryo unviable, it amounts to ending a human life, they say.
There is an almost-unbridgeable philosophical gulf between these two opposing views. The position taken by any individual on the issue—as on the closely related and underlying issue of abortion—will depend on whether that person believes a cluster of 16 cells can be considered a human being.
Indeed, given the scope for legitimate disagreement, it is not surprising that the issue has become so controversial. But it is also one that has been receiving significant public and political airing in developed and developing countries alike.
As a result, many individual countries have taken—or are taking—their own decisions, based, in most cases, on the standard democratic way: the considered feelings of the majority of their population as reflected in parliamentary debate.
Interestingly, some of the newly industrialising countries appear more pragmatic than developed ones. China, Singapore, Brazil and Panama are among those that have signalled their willingness to allow therapeutic cloning to be conducted.
A case for UN intervention?
Other countries—particularly those in the developing world in which the Catholic Church has a strong influence, or those with deeply embedded philosophical commitments—have chosen a different route.
Among the latter is Germany, a key proponent of an international ban, where the steadfast opposition to all forms of human cloning has strong and understandable roots in the outrages perpetrated by the Nazis in the name of medical science.
In some cases, however, the opposition to stem-cell research appears to be more nakedly ideological. This is the situation in the US, where such opposition has become a rallying cry for those who seek to roll back reforms aimed at creating a more tolerant society.
If the issue were to remain a purely domestic one, the rest of the world might not worry. Indeed, many countries are already benefiting from an influx of highly-qualified researchers keen to carry out such research, but unable to do so in US laboratories.
Sadly, the US has decided to turn the issue into something of an international moral crusade, making the drafting of a global treaty outlawing stem-cell research one of its five top priorities for action at the UN in 2004.
The irony of this move—coming from a country that has been so critical of the UN in other circumstances and so opposed to an international treaty limited global warming—is almost transparent. Unsurprisingly, there has been widespread criticism from the scientific community of the prospects that a promising line of research should be banned for what many see as primarily ideological reasons.
Equally unsurprising is the support for such research that has come from a range of patient groups, whose members—or at least those who come after them—would be among the first to benefit from the successful outcome of such research.
Last week, for example, this support was expressed in an open letter presented to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research on behalf of 125 domestic and international patients groups, scientific societies and academic institutions.
Given the closeness of the anticipated vote on this issue, however, the important fact will not be which side wins.
It will be to ensure that open-mindedness and pragmatism—provided it comes with its own appropriate form of ethical commitment—prevails over an ideological fervour that ends up as both anti-science and authoritarian.
Any international treaty that does not embrace the former values will not only devalue itself, but the whole UN system—if only because about half of the world will probably choose to ignore it. And that is an outcome that no one wants.—SciDev.Net
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