May 28, 2024


Massachusetts voters must have thought that their politicians’ bunfight over human embryonic stem cells was past history. Last year, overriding Governor Mitt Romney’s veto, the legislature legalised therapeutic cloning; researchers at Harvard University’s stem cell institute were elated. However, Romney, who is said to be courting conservative voters ahead of a tilt at the Presidency in 2008, still had a trick or two up his sleeve. A body stacked with his appointees, the Public Health Council, has issued regulations which criminalise a procedure which might come in handy if therapeutic cloning stalls.

Legislators were outraged. House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi said that the regulations "clearly fly in the face of both the law as passed and legislative intent". The Lieutenant Governor’s spokesman said that "it is a mistake to impose regulations that could have a chilling effect on those individuals at the forefront of this emerging field".

What was all the fuss about, Massachusetts voters might ask. After all therapeutic cloning is clearly legal. Didn’t Harvard’s stem cell institute get all that it wanted? Apparently not, especially after the Korean debacle showed that cloning human embryos will be far harder than it envisaged. At the moment, says the institute’s principal investigator, Kevin Eggan, "it may or may not ever become a reality". And if it doesn’t, researchers need a "reasonable alternative".

The alternative Eggan has in mind is recruiting genetically suitable donors whose sperm and eggs could be combined in vitro to create embryos for research. This is a practice which is permitted in the UK, but banned in France, Australia and Canada. And it was, says the health council, also banned under the Massachusetts law which forbade creating embryos to be donated for research. This doesn’t apply to us, say the scientists. We don’t want to create embryos to be donated, but to be used.

Legislators must regret the imprecise wording in the law, as they clearly intended to play Santa Claus for the scientists. As the Boston Globe put it in an editorial, they "understood that biotechnology offers promise to millions of disease victims and will be an important part of the state’s economic future." Romney, however, is sticking to his guns. "I believe it crosses a very bright moral line to take sperm and egg in the laboratory and start creating human life," he said. "It is Orwellian in its scope".