Reagan and P-I wrong about stem cells

Published: August 4, 2004
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One of the primary responsibilities of any editorial is to get the facts right. Unfortunately, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s editorial extolling Ron Reagan’s speech at the Democratic convention (“Health, science trump politics,” July 28), failed to make the grade.

First, the P-I claimed that stem-cell research could “yield treatments” for Alzheimer’s disease. Actually, as reported by The Washington Post — and admitted by Reagan on the television show “Hardball” — Alzheimer’s is unlikely to be effectively treated with embryonic stem cells. The Post reported that many biotechnologists are not hastening to correct this widespread misimpression for political reasons because, as one researcher said, “People need to believe in fairy tales.”

Second, Reagan inaccurately described the process of embryonic stem-cell research. Until now, the controversy involved the propriety of using leftover in vitro fertilization embryos from fertility clinics to derive stem-cell lines. But Reagan never once mentioned leftover IVF embryos.

Instead, he spoke of putting a patient’s skin cell nucleus into an enucleated human egg. This is human cloning using the same cloning procedure (known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer”) that resulted in Dolly the sheep. When conducted for medical research, somatic cell nuclear transfer is usually called therapeutic cloning.

Reagan and apparently the P-I assert that opposing therapeutic cloning (misnamed embryonic stem-cell research by Reagan) is merely ideological or theological. But polls show that most Americans oppose human cloning for any purpose, much less forcing taxpayers to pay for it.

Indeed, not only is there no pending federal legislation to fund human therapeutic cloning but the U.S. House of Representatives has twice passed legislation to outlaw the procedure in strong bipartisan votes. Meanwhile, a growing number of progressive countries have outlawed human cloning for both research and reproductive purposes, including France, Canada, Australia and Norway.

Reagan promised therapeutic cloning would allow each of us to have our “own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital.” Nonsense. Therapeutic cloning requires one human egg per cloning try, as Reagan noted. But human eggs are rare commodities. Where in the world would biotechnologists find the hundreds of millions of human eggs that would be needed to make cloned embryos of every American for use in medical treatments? Many feminists oppose therapeutic cloning precisely because they worry that the demand for eggs for use in cloning could result in the exploitation of poor women.

The P-I opined that the “concrete goals of improving health” ought to be pursued in the United States. Indeed. And they are.

Already, early human trials have commenced to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease, heart damage and Multiple Sclerosis using adult stem cells and other adult tissues. Late-stage juvenile diabetes, the prestigious journal Science reported, has been completely cured in mice using adult human spleen cells. Meanwhile, in Portugal, quadriplegics with spinal cord injury have had muscle and bladder control restored using their own olfactory tissues. One formerly paralyzed woman so treated with her own tissues recently appeared at a Senate subcommittee hearing to show a video of herself walking with braces. Cloning and embryonic stem-cell research are nowhere nearly as advanced.

The issues surrounding human cloning, embryonic stem-cell research and adult stem-cell research are complicated and important. Reasonable people can disagree about the propriety of certain areas of scientific inquiry and the wisdom of federal funding. But for the American people to make a reasoned value judgment, they need all of the facts. The media, including Ron Reagan and the P-I, must do a better job.
Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at Discovery Institute in Seattle, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World.”

WESLEY J. SMITH
GUEST COLUMNIST