Friday, September 15, 2006

Response to editorial, "Is Your Life Worth a Stem Cell?," Espresso, September 2006

Dear Editor:

It’s indicative of the silliness that has come to surround the stem-cell research issue that your editorial, “Is Your Life Worth a Stem Cell?,” focuses on refuting the bizarre and dumb idea that somehow the embryos created en masse in fertility clinics — most of which end up being defrosted and destroyed anyway — constitute human lives worthy of protection from being “exploited” by stem-cell researchers. It’s really unfortunate that the stem-cell debate has taken place almost entirely around this issue of scientific progress and the potential for effective treatments of some of humanity’s most catastrophic diseases versus the presumed “right to life” of blastocysts and fertilized eggs.

The irony is that there are other, more significant and entirely secular reasons, not necessarily to oppose stem-cell research but certainly to be skeptical of whether to spend the enormous amounts of money being requested by the scientists interested in this research and make the ongoing commitment to it contemplated by the stem-cell bond measure California voters passed nearly two years ago. These reasons include:

1) It may not work. Stem-cell research is based on some quite elaborate speculation in human biology. It’s true that there have been some promising research results in animals, but the history of medical science is littered with seemingly viable therapies that looked good in animal tests and didn’t do jack in humans. Stem-cell research may turn out the way gene therapy did: another highly promoted, heavily hyped high-tech scientific “advance” that not only didn’t effectively treat the genetic diseases it was supposed to but actually hastened the deaths of the poor unfortunates who underwent it. The voters of California were hoodwinked into believing that effective therapies based on stem-cell research already existed and needed only the money from the proposed bond measure to bring them to market. The science is actually at a far more theoretical, “iffy” level than that.

2) Even if it works, it’s likely to be unaffordable. The California stem-cell initiative contained no guarantees that any treatments developed with this enormous pot of taxpayer money would be offered to the public at a price ordinary working-class and even middle-class people could afford. It also contained no guarantees that the profits from publicly funded stem-cell research won’t go exclusively to private pharmaceutical companies. Surely even the most passionate advocates of stem-cell research don’t want a repeat of the fiasco of AIDS research, in which highly toxic, expensive therapies have been developed at great expense from public funds, given away to individual drug companies who obtained patent monopolies on them and therefore were able to sell them at sky-high prices to the very people who’d paid taxes to develop them in the first place.

3) Why are we spending enormous amounts of money on stem-cell research when over 40 million Americans have no access to health care at all? If the test is really “the greatest good for the greatest number,” wouldn’t the billions of dollars it will take to get stem-cell therapies from theory to actual treatments be better spent on ensuring that more Americans have access to basic care that we already know helps save lives?

4) Reproductive cloning. Just about everyone on both sides of the stem-cell issue agrees that one thing they don’t want to see happen is “reproductive cloning” — the creation of genetically engineered “designer babies” à la Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World and the film Gattaca. The problem is that one of the most highly touted forms of stem-cell therapy, at least in theory, is “therapeutic cloning,” the deliberate creation of a cloned embryo in order to grow replacements for diseased cell tissues or body parts — and once the scientists figure out how to do therapeutic cloning, they will also automatically know how to do reproductive cloning as well. The knowledge of how to do one will get you the other as well — and so far there hasn’t been a technology in the history of science that political and social institutions have been able to control so that only the good, not the bad, potentials of it are realized.

The above points aren’t arguments against doing stem-cell research — after all, unless we actually do the research we won’t ever know whether it will work or not. But they are arguments for a greater humility about the issue, probably a smaller public investment and tighter controls to make sure that if American taxpayers spend billions of dollars developing treatments based on stem-cell technology, they actually get their investment back in the form of access to the treatments and royalties from them instead of having the profits all go to Big Pharma the way they have with publicly funded treatments for AIDS, cancer and all too many other diseases.

Sincerely yours,

Mark Gabrish Conlan