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The Race Card in Michigan

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on November 3rd, 2008

From Willie Horton to Jeremiah Wright, the race card in political campaigns is as American as apple pie.  But some folks over in Michigan are taking this to new and indeed remarkable heights. As previously discussed on Biopolitical Times, Michigan’s Proposal 2 attempts to change the state constitution to permit the donation of leftover embryos from fertility treatments to scientific research.

Opponents of Proposal 2 tend to view embryos as an early form of human life and therefore see embryonic stem cell research as unethical human experimentation. To bolster their moral claim regarding the use of vulnerable subjects in scientific research, they are now comparing embryonic stem cell research to the Tuskegee experiment:

Update (Nov. 21): The video has been removed.

As my good friend Phil Leotardo would say, “apples and bowling balls, my friend.” There are certainly legitimate ethical concerns about the destruction of human embryos for research purposes. Even James Thomson, one of the leading pioneers in human embryonic stem cell research, told the New York Times “if human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.” But, at the same time, there are also legitimate ethical reasons to allow this research to go forward.

It is difficult to see how the ethical tensions around human embryonic stem cell research are comparable to the universal consensus that it is morally abhorrent to exploit poor Southern Blacks by leaving them untreated with syphilis to simply observe how they die. Opponents of Proposal 2 certainly have a right to follow their own moral and ethical compasses. What’s less clear, however, is the ethics of using another group’s brutal oppression to promote their own political cause.

Synthetic Biology Debate

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on October 30th, 2008

The ETC Group's Jim Thomas is a key figure in the campaign to alert the public and civil society to the perils of synthetic biology, and lead author of Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology. On November 17 in San Francisco, he'll confront pioneering synbio practitioner and "open source biotechnology" proponent Drew Endy. The debate is sponsored by the Long Now Foundation, a private organization founded by a group of techno-enthusiastic deep-thinkers.

Not sure what synthetic biology really is? You're not alone. A recent poll by the Woodrow Wilson Center found that nearly nine in ten Americans say they know little or nothing at all about it. But when it was explained to them in focus groups, most said the risks outweigh the benefits.

The short definition of synthetic biology: building artificial life forms from scratch. The short version of the problem: "Genetic engineering on steroids" - with no societal debate or regulatory oversight. For lots more, check out the ETC Group website.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Will the UN revisit cloning?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 29th, 2008

An ethics panel affiliated with the United Nations is currently examining whether the UN's nonbinding statement against human cloning [PDF] remains adequate. Today is the second part of a two-day meeting in Paris of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). As in most debates around human cloning, what's at stake is what to do with cloning-based stem cell research (a.k.a. therapeutic cloning or SCNT) while trying to prohibit reproductive cloning.

Back in 2002, France and Germany launched an effort towards an international prohibition against reproductive cloning. Even though both nations ban cloning-based stem cell research domestically, their proposal remained silent on that practice in order to garner broad support. Within a couple years, however, the process reached stalemate due to the intervention of the United States, whose conservative Bush administration countered with a ban on all cloning. An unsatisfying and vague nonbinding compromise was passed in 2005, that called on nations "to prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life." This statement, which passed with only a plurality, could be interpreted as either endorsing or rejecting cloning-based stem cell research.

In subsequent years, two key circumstances have changed. First, new methods of cellular reprogramming are quickly achieving the goals of cloning-based stem cell research, which itself has seen little progress. Second, a new US presidential administration will take office in January, with the safe bet on Barack Obama. His position on cloning-based stem cell research remains unstated, but his desire for greater international cooperation is clear.

How are these changes playing out in Paris? According to a press release, the IBC is leaning towards a binding international prohibition on reproductive cloning, and a requirement for consistent and effective regulation of cloning-based stem cell research where it is permitted. If such an agreement can be achieved, it would be a welcome development.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

UK Grants All the Scientists' Wishes

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 29th, 2008

After two years of wrangling and reports, the bill to overhaul the United Kingdom's oversight of assisted reproduction and embryo research has finally passed. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 2008 [PDF bill, and final amendments] grants researchers essentially all that they asked for, and then some. 

One green light is for the high-profile issue of using animal eggs in human cloning-based stem cell research, a process that creates "cytoplasmic hybrids." Researchers will also be permitted to fertilize a human egg with animal sperm or vice-versa, forming "true hybrids," despite the fact that no one has produced a reason to actually do this.  And thanks to a last-minute amendment, stem cell scientists will also be able to create clonal embryos from tissues of people - including the dead - who did not give their explicit consent for this procedure. 

Perhaps most importantly, the revised Act now explicitly permits the genetic modification of human embryos for research, under license (although these were permitted under an ad hoc license last year. Correction, Nov. 6: So such license has been issued.)

For more information, see the background research of David King of Human Genetics Alert (1, 2 [PDF], 3 [PDF], 4 [PDF])

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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