May 30, 2024


 Opponents of cloning human embryos are licking their wounds after last week’s US election. Although the issue was just a straw in the gale which blew away the Republican majority in Congress, it has reshaped the politics of American bioethics. Throughout his administration President Bush has been adamant that he will not loosen restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Now its supporters in the Senate appear to have one vote more than they need to override his veto. In the House of Representatives, however, supporters still appear to be about 30 votes short of that mark.

With Iraq and terrorism uppermost in voters’ minds, it is difficult to discern what they feel about a boutique issue like therapeutic cloning, or, to use the woollier term preferred by supporters, somatic cell nuclear transfer. Six Democratic senatorial candidates who clearly supported it were victorious. Three governors who campaigned vigorously in favour of it won. But in the House, the results were less clear. Of 15 races in which the issue was prominent, eight supporters won, and seven lost. And even in the Senate, the results were not a straightforward endorsement of cloning. One of its most outspoken opponents, Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, was defeated by another opponent, Bob Casey Jr. So the election was far from being a ringing endorsement of the demands of scientists and patient advocacy groups.

Only in the state of Missouri did voters have a chance to deliver an unequivocal verdict on cloning. They had been asked to decide whether to support an amendment to the state constitution to legalise it and bulletproof it from legislative interference. In the end, they did, but only by 51% to 49%. Opponents of what they described as a "clone and kill amendment" whittled away a 2 to 1 lead earlier in the year to a margin of 47,000 votes, even though they were outspent by at least 10 to 1. Is the message that voters want cures at any cost, or that bottomless pockets are needed to secure their votes?

However, the election has certainly delivered more state funding for stem cell researchers, even if the Federal purse stays closed. New York’s governor-elect Eliot Spitzer has promised US$1 billion for stem cell research. Wisconsin’s governor Jim Doyle, who cruised back into office after making stem cell research a major plank in his campaign has promised significant support. Smaller initiatives are likely elsewhere.

Slate’s canny observer of bioethical issues, William Saletan, observed that the 2006 election shows that biotechnology is becoming another major campaign issue for Americans, along with national security, the economy and the culture wars. "Hold on to your hats," he writes. "A new kind of issue has arrived. It’s moral, it’s economic, and it’s life and death. Biotechnology is here to stay, even if humanity, as we know it, isn’t." (For analysis from the editor of BioEdge, see his article in MercatorNet, "Health trumps ethics in mid-term elections".)