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How did a theoretically promising but completely unproven avenue of research become such a hot-button political issue? At least eight States are competing with each to throw money at embryonic stem cell research, while about as many either ban or restrict it. President Bush, by executive order, severely limited the kind of research the Federal government will fund, and Congress is considering bills both to remove the restrictions and to make them more severe.

In the US, we have at present the worst of all possible worlds — one in which the unscrupulous are free to do anything they can pay for; while some medical researchers cannot get government funding for their work. Embryos aren't protected. Basic science is hindered. No one is happy.

This chapter sorts the facts from the hype, explains how we got to this pass, and points towards a way out of it.

The section titles, below, are followed by

There are many more resources in the Appendix.














BOX 4.1 Stem Cells by Function

BOX 4.2 Stem Cells by Origin

BOX 4.3 Scientists' Opinions on Using Embryos

BOX 4.4 How Many Eggs Would Be Needed?

BOX 4.5 The Story That Will Not Die

BOX 4.6 "You Always Go With the Little Girl."

BOX 4.7 Which Lines Are Eligible for Federal Funding?

BOX 4.8 Companies Working on Adult Stem Cells

BOX 4.9 Deconstructing the Korean "Clone For Stem Cells"




Stem cells seem, at first glance, to represent the most benign side of human genetic technologies. Advocates of embryonic stem cell research in particular promise miracle cures, and the loudest opposition seems to come from fundamentalist conservatives, against whom any Democrat, Green or progressive will line up instinctively.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

Embryonic stem cells definitely represent a fascinating area for research, but that does not necessarily mean that medical treatments using them will be available soon. ... Even Dr Irving Weissman, an active campaigner for funding embryonic stem cell research, when pushed, talks about 20 years — and says he'd be shocked if we have "a salable product" in five years. This avenue of research is a long-term proposition.

Concern about the unlimited and unregulated use of embryonic stem cells, especially, is by no means limited to conservatives. Many feminists are specifically troubled by the prospect of women being exploited for their eggs — and especially by the cavalier way this concern is often overlooked. ...

There is also a different aspect of fairness: Who benefits? Any developed therapies of the kind described below would be expensive. An analysis by Rockefeller University scientist Peter Mombaerts in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted the large number of eggs required, and the complexity of the procedure, and estimated that "to generate a set of customized [embryonic stem] cell lines for an individual, the budget for the human oocyte material [eggs] alone would be $100,000–200,000." ...

Politically, in the US, cloning and stem cells have been joined in a way that has not only made it impossible to come to enough agreement to pass a national law of any kind on the subject — either subject — but may also have buried some questions we should be addressing. Therefore, both the science of stem cells — what is known and what we hope to learn — and the politics of the issue, which are something of a case study in how not to make good decisions, are subjects of this chapter. ...



Free Documents from the Web

Links were checked and functioning as of 5/08/05; they are supposed to open in new windows. Please report broken ones.

The Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) Stem Cell Primer and Stem Cell Myths are short (3 pages each, about 36k as pdfs) summaries of the issue; on the same page are links to several articles on related issues.

The Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) research cloning discussion is unusually balanced and details arguments both in favor of and against research cloning, with rebuttals to each and many links, concluding by supporting a moratorium on the practice. CGS, which is based in Oakland, CA, has been closely monitoring the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), particularly from the perspective of public accountability.

David Jensen's blog, California Stem Cell Report, is an easy way to monitor day-to-day events concerning the CIRM.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer Stem Cell Information; the site includes detailed information for researchers, and also a "Stem Cell Basics" page, available as a cumbersome 8-page pdf (960k).

Monitoring Stem Cell Research, by the President's Council on Bioethics, is a 433-page report, available as a single pdf (1.5mb) or a series of web pages; you can can also email a request for a printed version. An excellent, if dry, overview of the field as of January, 2004, it does not make recommendations but does include 10 commissioned papers by experts in the field. The only trouble is, if you can wade through it all, you probably don't need to.

Chapter 25 of the 2005 edition of Our Bodies Ourselves covers Infertility and Assisted Reproduction, and the excellent companion website features extensive resources related to egg donation, cloning, stem cell research and related issues. They include a position statement on embryo cloning, testimony given by OBOS Executive Director Judy Norsigian to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, 03/05/02, in favor of both embryonic stem cell research and a moratorium on research cloning, from a pro-choice, feminist perspective.

International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) Director Andrew Kimbrell, author of The Human Body Shop, gave testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, 02/05/02, listing several important concerns about research cloning.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has a page on Stem Cell Research and Applications: Scientific, Ethical, and Policy Issues, which will lead you to their full report, a 51-page pdf (300k), or to a web page with the "Findings and Recommendations." Since it was produced in 1999, it is somewhat out of date; inevitably, it is strongly in favor of embryonic stem cell research.




Brian Alexander, Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion, Basic Books, 2003, is an enjoyable read that includes much on stem cells and revealing portraits of Michael West and others.

Stephen S. Hall, Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, is a deeper, though still accessible, book that also includes much on stem cells and revealing portraits of Michael West and others.