May 29, 2024

Bioethics and the American election

American voters handed George W. Bush the presidency this week in a close but convincing election result. However, they sent confusing signals about their support for controversial bioethical issues. The pundits agreed that Bush's appeal to conservative religious voters was a key factor in his victory. A national exit poll found that 22% of voters cited moral values as “the most important issue” — more than the economy, terrorism and Iraq. If this is the case, opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage probably tipped the scales towards the president in key swing states like Florida and Ohio. But some voters must also have spurned Senator John Kerry because of his adamant support for destructive embryo research.

On the other hand, voters in the largest state in the US, California, endorsed Proposition 71 in a stunning repudiation of Bush's policy of restricted federal funding for hESC research.. This authorises a special US$3 billion bond issue to finance embryonic stem cell (hESC) research over the next 10 years. The margin was huge, 59% to 41%, although not unsurprising, considering that supporters of the measure outspent their opponents by $25 million to $400,000. It also had the support of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the late Christopher Reeve and a clutch of Hollywood glitterati, plus a number of prominent businessmen, including Microsoft's boss Bill Gates.

The funds which will become available to scientists are so immense that some scientists are fretting that too much money might be chasing too few high-quality research projects. The annual budget of the new California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will be more than 10 times what the Federal government is currently spending on hESC research. “We have to have very discerning review boards so it doesn't become a boondoggle for companies that haven't succeeded,” said Dr Irving Weissman, a prominent stem cell researcher at Stanford University.

Only Californian scientists will be allowed to paddle in the sea of money, so stem cell labs elsewhere fear that young researchers will be lured to the West Coast. “This is going to be the stem cell centre of the world, not just the country,” “said Evan Snyder, a San Diego stem cell scientist. How institutions in other states will compete has scientists scratching their heads. Harvard University, in Massachusetts, is struggling to raise a mere $100 million in private money for its new stem cell institute. Already, one of the few companies which works with hESCs, Advanced Cell Technology, also of Massachusetts, has indicated that it will set up a lab in California.

Jeers of “junk science” were not the only concerns raised by opponents of the measure. The Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) supports research on hESCs but lobbied hard against Proposition 71. [It] gives the biotechnology industry influence over a huge sum of public funds and restricts public accountability,” said its executive director Richard Hayes. “This is bad science, bad business and bad policy. Both patients and taxpayers are ill-served.” Marcy Darnovsky, also of the CGS, said that there were still many unanswered questions about conflicts of interest for scientist- entrepreneurs, about the high cost of eventual treatments and about health risks to women who donate eggs for therapeutic cloning.

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