Sorting fact from fiction in 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Sidetracking Bush's free trade push.
How a Dutch dandy became a conservative darling.
Shunned by Society
The misery of AIDS in Africa.
Fear and Loathing.
And the winner is...
The savings and clone scandal.
Will the Israeli Supreme Court back "transfer" of Palestinians?
Elections in a changing Ireland.
No thanks, World Bank says to a critical study.
Teaching social responsibility.
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Strength and Light
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May 24, 2002
The Savings and Clone Scandal
ebate over the Senate’s two competing cloning bills—one that would ban all cloning and one that would allow “therapeutic cloning”—has produced some of the year’s most compelling, if occasionally gruesome, political theater.
In April, half a dozen paraplegics and quadriplegics hung themselves from a mock gallows in front of the Capitol to illustrate that a ban on all cloning was the equivalent of a death sentence for those whose lives may hinge on the medical advances it may bring.
Anti-cloning activists, in turn, have produced their own paralyzed spokesmen: George W. Bush appeared with former New York policeman Steven McDonald, who is paralyzed from the neck down, to reiterate his own opposition to all forms of cloning research. Typically not satisfied with one negative when two will do, Bush told reporters, “We must prevent human cloning by stopping it before it starts. … Life is a creation, not a commodity.”
That’s strong anti-market talk from a president whose entire health care platform rests on the deus ex machina of free market competition. As recently as last February, Bush insisted that when it comes to caring for the lives of citizens, “government’s role is not to centralize, nor is government’s role to control the delivery of medicine.” Rather, he said, the government’s role was to encourage “individuals to make decisions in the marketplace.”
Dramatically underscoring the president’s opposition to governmental oversight when it comes to making life a commodity, Bush has yet to appoint a chief of the Food and Drug Administration, the very agency charged with enforcing whatever restrictions on research the Senate passes as well as all current consumer protection regulations.
Insiders say Bush’s initial candidate, Alastair Wood, may have lost his shot at the nomination because of his “controversial” support for competition-restricting procedures like the implementation of a drug-safety board and curbs on direct-to-consumer advertising of new drugs.
Certainly, cloning technologies could lead to important medical advances, and if the issue were one of pure science, the choice to pursue research—however cautiously—would be an easy one. But the glowing optimism of research proponents obscures the shadowy presence of a growing biotech lobby.
Campaign contributions from pharmaceutical and health service companies have increased from just over $3 million in 1990 to just over $10 million so far in 2002. It would be nice to believe that the pro-research bill’s cosponsors, Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), support therapeutic cloning because, as Specter puts it, “ideology has no place when it comes to medical science.” Yet it’s hard not to connect that conclusion with the tens of thousands of dollars that biotech has placed in the senator’s pockets. And surely it’s more than coincidence that the most celebrated pro-research convert, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), received a generous $399,000 in 2000 from the side that, Hatch says, will “help set the ethical and moral standards for the rest of the world.”
If only we could be sure that those standards would be high. In the wake of 9/11, the biotech industry asked Congress for reforms that would make producing vaccines for use against bioterrorism attacks more profitable (like greater long-term financial commitment by the government and quicker review of new vaccines by the FDA). At the same time, lobbyists and executives protested a global treaty that would impose random inspections and stricter review of the production of potential bioterror weapons (which lobbyists claimed would impose higher costs and invade corporate privacy); a treaty that Bush obligingly declined to sign.
More chilling is the growth of the “human tissue industry,” which offers a bleak case-study of a likely future should cloning research be approved in the current atmosphere of free market euphoria and health industry privatization. The New York Times reported in January that tissue donation is virtually unregulated.
While it is illegal to sell body parts, companies may charge an unspecified, unregulated, “reasonable” fee for procuring, handling and shipping them. According to the Times, a typical human body is worth about $220,000 in parts, and for-profit tissue banks have found numerous ways to pump that number up, from accepting tissues rejected by nonprofit services to allowing funeral home employees to harvest donations.
At present, tissue regeneration is one of the few practical applications of therapeutic cloning; imagine what kind of “procurement” fee could be rung up for custom-made tissues. Imagine what corners might be cut to maximize profits.
The vote in the Senate is close, but observers say momentum on the side of research is building. This isn’t so bad—what’s scary is that research isn’t all we’d be saying “yes” to. The regulatory structure designed to maximize that research’s benefit and minimize its harm is disintegrating. Both sides of the debate contend that the ethical question at the heart of the cloning debate is really about the value we place on human life: Research foes say that human life is too valuable to let science meddle with its innermost processes; research advocates say that human life is too valuable to ignore the potentially life-saving advances that research might bring.
Either way, human life is too valuable to continue to let the open market decide its price.
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