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Republicans Toughen on Embryonic Research. Will McCain Follow?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 28th, 2008

The Republican party platform, to be unveiled next week, will take a much harder line than before against research that uses embryos. A blog po­st at the conservative ­National Review provides a first-hand account of how changing an "or" to an "and" resulted in the platform expressing opposition to all "experimentation on human embryos." Not only is this position regardless of the funding source, but the platform committee rejected an amendment that would have limited the opposition to the "destruction of" embryos.

It's clear that Republican hard-liners are trying to capitalize on technical advances that don't use embryos. My guess is that public opinion has not yet changed substantially, though, and the party risks alienating moderates. But even more risky is that the party platform now contradicts the position of its presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain. He has supported expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Does the new party platform make it more likely that he will bow to conservative pressure, and alter his own position? 

McCain's statement at last week's forum with Rev. Rick Warren left that door open. And his website slightly dodges the issue. While it emphasizes his support for research that doesn't destroy embryos and his opposition to "the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes," it does not explicitly address embryonic stem cell research using embryos from fertility clinics.

McCain has left himself enough wiggle room to revisit his position, potentially moving to the right to shore up his base. However, I remain skeptical that he'll use it.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Assisted Reproduction at 30

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on August 25th, 2008

Biopolitical Times contributor and CGS colleague Pete Shanks writes about the need for regulation in the assisted reproduction industry over at The Cutting Edge. An excerpt:

Thirty years ago the assisted reproduction industry was born. From tiny but noisy beginnings, it grew through an occasionally troubled adolescence to maturity. Now it's time for it to become a responsible member of society….

[T]he American Society for Reproductive Medicine issues guidelines, and the Centers for Disease Control collect data, but there are essentially no sanctions for violations….That's why so many moderate, sympathetic analysts complain that the industry is "not enveloped by a coherent whole regulatory framework" (Kathy Hudson, Johns Hopkins). "A bit of mandatory reining in might not be a bad thing," suggests Peggy Orenstein, who has written about her own experience with assisted reproduction. As Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, says, "Governments need to play a more active role in regulating the baby trade."

The demand for regulation will only grow as the industry tries to broaden its markets. Some new techniques are useful, such as those allowing previously infertile men to father children (though there remain some medical questions about the results). Others are more problematic. Egg freezing is being pushed as a techno-solution to the "problem" of working women wanting to delay pregnancy. And on the horizon, getting closer all the time, is the idea of choosing your baby's height or body type or perhaps even intelligence….

These issues are not new. Back in 1978, Dr. C. Everett Koop, later President Reagan's surgeon general, while supporting IVF worried about "the next step, when Mrs. Jones decides she wants a child from that tall, blond gene pool down the block." A prominent liberal British MP feared that "we are moving to a time when an embryo purchaser could select in advance the color of the baby's eyes and its probable IQ."

The British, to their credit, set up an agency to oversee these and related issues so long ago that it is now in the process of reform. The U.S., observers say, should also take the next step to properly oversee an industry that needs to take its rightful place in society - supported, available to all, and legally regulated.

 Previously on Biopolitical Times:


Girl babies, boy babies, gender expectations

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on August 25th, 2008

Sex selection has become a frequent topic in parenting publications. The latest treatment is in Babble, the hip online magazine "for a new generation of parents" that debuted in December 2006. In "Pick a Sex, Any Sex," Jeanne Sager reports on parents who have, and parents who would never consider it.

Sager also cites the qualms of a California psychotherapist and author, Tina Tessina, who says, "there are a lot of issues parents ignore when they tie expectations to a child's sex."

"I can understand, if parents already have a child of one gender, why they might want a child of the other gender," Tessina said. "However, gender does not determine personality or parent-child connection. So, parents who put a great deal of store in expectations about gender may turn out to be disappointed…

"It really depends on the emotional maturity of the parent, but this kind of trying to control the baby's gender - rather than just being glad it's a healthy baby - indicates some lack of emotional maturity anyway."

Babble's home page features a poll on sex selection. In answer to the question, "Would you go to extremes to pick your baby's sex?" - admittedly not a neutral way of eliciting opinion - only six percent selected the answer "You bet."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

How to turn a gene for this into one for that

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 22nd, 2008

Snidely Whiplash, a stereotypical villain who certainly looks ruthless

In June, I reported that research into a gene correlated with the presence, or absence, of altruism during an economic game was reported by Nature News as the "dictator gene" with a "link to ruthlessness." At the time, I asked:

In this case, a news article in one of the world's most respected scientific journal tells us that a genetic characteristic can lead to the worst of possible human behaviors. To the extent that this framing becomes adopted as truth, how will society react to the identification of the gene in individuals?

Now, a small firm is not only offering the "ruthlessness gene" test, but has created a target market. Genesis Biolabs is offering what it portrays as "the first genetic screen for marital success":

Screening for the "ruthlessness" gene is likely an indicator of marital happiness. Marriages born out of mutual respect and mutual interest rather than self-interest are much more likely to succeed and probably less likely to end in divorce. Is your fiancé just after your money? Those with the "ruthlessness" gene may very well be. Those with the altruistic version of AVPR1a probably aren't. Ruthless people will lie, cheat and steal to get what they want. Genetics may not be a guaranteed indicator of human behavior and motivation [genetics is only one half of the nature vs. nurture debate] but genes don't lie. Before you make a lifetime commitment, have your fiancé tested. 

These results were published in the journal Genes, Brain and Behavior. NatureNews subsequently published an article referring to this gene as the "Ruthlessness Gene"! The original authors might have preferred to call it the altruistic gene, the benevolent gene or the universalistic gene. A Google search for the ruthlessness gene leads right to AVPR1a, while a search for these other possible names does not....

Before getting married, or making a business partnership, this genetic test might be appropriate. All of our politicians should probably submit to this test.

The purveyors of this test concede that it doesn't really measure potential marital success. And Genesis also accurately points out that it was Nature News - not the researchers who discovered the gene - who cast it as the "ruthlessness gene."

This is a glaring example both of the importance of media framings, and of why consumer genetic tests - and emerging human biotechnologies in general - are in dire need of responsible oversight. Hopefully, the company's remarkably low-budget website will deter most consumers from forking over a hundred bucks in hopes of discovering if they, or their potential spouses, business partners, or elected representatives, may secretly be jerks (at least at the genetic level).

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