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Obama on stem cell policy change

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on March 10th, 2009

Yesterday's removal of restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research by President Obama was both big and welcome news, and not just because the restrictions were unpopular and unduly restrictive. Obama also called for "strict" federal oversight of stem cell research:

We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.
The President also unequivocally condemned human reproductive cloning, both for safety and social reasons:
And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.

Furthermore, the President's rhetoric was cautious, in sharp contrast to the boosters of human embryonic stem cell research who imply that cures are just around the corner:

[S]cientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions.... (emphasis mine)

Ultimately, I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No President can promise that.

But if we pursue this research, maybe one day -- maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children's lifetime -- but maybe one day, others [will be cured].

And he emphasized the need to balance the potential benefits and costs:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted.

However, the devilish details remain to be determined. The Presidentís executive order does not say which stem cell research will be eligible for federal funding. Instead, it merely revokes Bush's policies and calls on the National Institutes of Health to develop guidelines "consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations" within 120 days.

In contrast, Congressional bills to overturn Bush's restrictions were clearly limited to lines derived from embryos not needed by fertility clinics and which had proper informed consent. Considering Obama's language both during and after his presidential campaign, we hope the NIH will stake out a similar position.

Antinori Clones a Claim

Posted by Pete Shanks on March 4th, 2009


The controversial Italian fertility specialist Severino Antinori just claimed to have cloned three humans nine years ago.

So, born in early 2000? That's strange. Let's go to the archive:

  • In January 2001, he was predicting that he would make a clone "within the next year or so."
  • In April 2002, he asserted that one woman was pregnant, and later that three were, though his former partner said Antinori had "no clones, no laboratory and no doctors to help him."
  • In June 2002, he said there had been no birth but there were five pregnancies.
  • In December 2002, he said that the first clone would be born in Belgrade in January 2003.
  • In July 2003, he said he had a "photograph of the five-month-old cloned foetus" which would be published "shortly in a medical journal."

That's when many of us stopped following his publicity campaigns. This latest "bombshell" was translated and distributed by AFP, so it has been fairly widely reprinted, but without much comment so far. On the bright side, Antinori has given us a new euphemism for cloning (aka nuclear transfer, SCNT etc.): "genetic reprogramming" or, in the original Italian, "ricodificazione genetica."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Bioethicist and industry spokesman on the baby business

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on March 3rd, 2009

Following on stories from the Associated Press on the absence of regulation in the fertility industry and from the Wall Street Journal on genetic selection for skin, hair, and eye color, a news article today raises further questions about America's "wild west" field of assisted reproduction. My colleague Marcy Darnovsky was cited in Suzanne Bohan's piece, which was published both in a group of thirty Northern California newspapers and as a shorter version delivered by the UPI wire.

Two other cited individuals are worth noting, as well. The prominent bioethicist Art Caplan drew the connection from the assisted reproduction industry to both eugenics and the profit motive:

But the nature of the business calls for tighter oversight, said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and a regular MSNBC commentator....

Caplan has long favored an oversight system for fertility clinics modeled on those governing blood- and organ donation services. Caplan helped establish the latter, the United Network for Organ Sharing, in the 1980s. It consists of an advisory board, and works on contract with a federal health agency. The United States is also one of only a handful of developed countries without laws regulating specific treatment protocols in fertility clinics, such as the number of embryo transfers or screening embryos for sex selection.

And the high rate of multiple births isn't the most vexing concern for Caplan. What alarms him is the prospect of fertility clinics offering services to endow offspring with extra intelligence, athletic ability, or physical attributes. A procedure called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, already is used to screen for sex selection at many clinics in the United States, as well as for genetic abnormalities.

''PGD is the single most controversial subject to ever face this field because you get right back to the eugenics issue,'' he said, referring to a movement that arose in the early 20th century that called for the promotion of certain traits among humans, and the reduction of others....

''The industry sees this not just as inevitable, but incredibly lucrative,'' Caplan said.

He took a similar line on Fox News this morning:

Sean Tipton, the spokesperson for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, was in a more awkward position. The ASRM issues guidelines, whose flexibility it defends as necessary for doctors to adapt to particular cases. However, the guidelines appear to be violated by 80% of fertility clinics.

Regarding whether it's likely that four out of five cases could merit exceeding the guidelines due to unusual challenges in conceiving, he said the society couldn't second-guess doctors' decisions.

''We don't like to assume,'' Tipton said.
And when asked about the potential for PGD to select for nonmedical characteristics - a practice contrary to his organization's guidelines - Tipton only deferred to the mantra of parental choice:
Tipton, with the reproductive society, said it wouldn't comment on a technology not yet in use, other than to say, ''We are generally in favor of physicians providing good, understandable information, so patients can make the best decision for their families.''

California Senator on fertility industry regulation

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on March 3rd, 2009

Sen. Negrete McLeod

A California state senator has taken action toward providing oversight for the state's unregulated fertility industry. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino) introduced SB 674, which would define fertility clinics and egg extraction sites as "outpatient settings," bringing them under the jurisdiction of the Medical Board of California and establishing accreditation standards and guidelines for their operation. In a press statement, Sen. Negrete McLeod said, "It is alarming that the State of California has no one watching out for patients who go to these fertility clinics or surgical centers.  There should be a greater level of scrutiny over these clinics because of their increasing popularity."

The district of Sen. Negrete McLeod is just a few miles from the home of the mother of the recent octuplets. The senator is also the former chair of the California Legislative Women's Caucus. A few years ago, she introduced a bill which would have brought conflict-of-interest provisions to the state's stem cell research agency.

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