Stem Cell Obscurantism

On May 19, a group of Korean scientists published in the magazine Science the results of research that for the first time isolated human embryonic stem cell lines specifically tailored to match the DNA of male and female patients of various ages. The next day, British scientists at Newcastle University announced that they had successfully produced a cloned human embryo using donated eggs and genetic material from stem cells.

Both breakthroughs constitute a stunning advance in stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning that they have the ability to develop into any type of human tissue. This carries great promise, in particular, for sufferers of spinal cord injuries and diseases. Years of studies, and the passionate pleas of patients worldwide, are finally opening the way to a technique – somatic cell nuclear transfer, also known as “therapeutic cloning” – that may bring about epochal changes for the health of us all.

No less remarkable than the latest discoveries was the timing of their announcement, which came on the eve of a vote in the United States Congress to expand federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells created during in vitro fertilization (but never implanted in a womb). Both announcements also came a month ahead of an Italian referendum – the largest popular consultation on the matter ever held anywhere – that seeks to change a law adopted last year that prohibits both in vitro fertilization and stem cell research.

The debate over therapeutic cloning is, of course, hardly limited to the US and Italy. The UN General Assembly ended a two-year debate on the matter in March 2005 by approving a non-binding declaration that calls upon states to “prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.” The declaration passed with 84 votes in favor, 34 against, and 37 abstentions.

Last summer, in response to the UN decision, 78 Nobel laureates signed a petition discouraging the adoption of an international ban on human cloning, because “it would condemn hundreds of millions of individuals afflicted by debilitating diseases to a life deprived of hope.” The petition, initiated by Luca Coscioni Association, an NGO devoted to the promotion of the freedom of scientific research, called on governments to reject prohibitions in favor of “rules that protect the right to life and health by ensuring freedom of research, choice, and knowledge.”

There is, of course, widespread consensus against cloning devoted to the reproduction of human beings, and most of the world has outlawed the technique. So this is not the issue. The Nobelists’ point is that, as far as therapeutic cloning is concerned, rather than attempting global prohibition, it would be much wiser, and possibly more effective, to promote an international regulatory regime through ample legalization of stem cell research.

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But, as the UN declaration – and the long debate surrounding its adoption – illustrate, scientific arguments are not at the center of national and international debates, which revolve around questions concerning the beginning of “human life.” As we know, science and religion offer different answers. Some Christian theologians, for example, believe that life begins at conception, while scientists maintain that nerve and brain cells emerge around 14 days after conception. Scientists generally agree that research should be done within that period – and always allowed on spare embryos that will never be implanted.

In such a crucially important debate, the quality of the information offered is paramount, and it is no coincidence that those who oppose stem cell research prefer to avoid a public debate that would force them to confront scientific arguments. They know all too well that whenever a secular and scientific debate has been permitted and encouraged, the general public – regardless of nationality and religious or political affiliation – has overwhelmingly expressed itself in favor of stem cell research.

We saw a clear example of this last November in California, where 60% of the electorate voted in favor of Proposition 71 on state funding for stem cell research. Similarly, the latest polls in Italy suggest that the overwhelming majority of those who intend to vote are in favor of therapeutic cloning. However, a referendum in Italy requires 50% turnout to validate the outcome. Revealingly, the Vatican, knowing that it cannot win, is currently campaigning strongly for mass abstention.

More than the advancement of science is at stake here. The Vatican’s stance on the Italian vote is emblematic of a broader threat to the very foundation of modern liberal democracy: the constitutional separation of Church and State.

In an era of growing concern about religious fundamentalism, liberal democratic institutions must reaffirm their role in protecting individual rights for all. And, in order to enable the full enjoyment of our freedoms – be they of worship or scientific research – the state must reassert its secular nature. We need mechanisms to address violations of moral or religious beliefs, but we cannot place restrictions on individuals’ ability to contribute to the public welfare.