Thoughts on Stem Cell Amendment from the Harbours
This is a letter that I find difficult to write because I am not a political person, and I don't believe in imposing my views on others. But I am deeply troubled by the inaccuracies that are being used to shape public opinion in favor of the Missouri stem cell amendment on the November ballot and I feel a responsibility to speak out since I understand the scientific and medical issues.
If you read nothing else, please read this: Amendment 2 is a deceptive piece of legislation that may mislead Missourians into approving a constitutional right to human cloning, something over 80 percent oppose. It would create a uniquely privileged status for biotech special interests to do human cloning experiments with taxpayer money.
If the industrial revolution were just now starting and we had the choice of developing a society dependent on solar energy rather than oil, is there any doubt that we would choose solar energy? I think that we face a similar choice today regarding embryonic stem cells versus adult stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells may seem to the lay person to offer greater promise for cures, but even if this were true (which it is not), embryonic stem cell therapies will create an insatiable and unceasing demand for more and more women's eggs. And once a hugh biotech industrial complex is established that is dependent on women's eggs to generate more and more cloned stem cells, it will be impossible for us to get rid of it. In contrast, investing our resources in adult stem cells will ultimately result in similar or greater cures than embryonic stem cells without creating a biotech industrial complex that pursues women's eggs the way oil companies plunder our land for oil profits.
The basic arguments for the stem cell amendment are essentially that (1) embryonic stem cell research has tremendous potential for curing a wide variety of diseases, and (2) any concerns that this research will be abused are unfounded because we can trust the medical and scientific community to regulate itself.
Being knowledgeable of stem cell biology and related medical research, I am deeply skeptical that either of these arguments is true.
As many of you know, I am a physician-scientist at Washington University School of Medicine and have received millions of dollars in research funding, part of which has been for stem cell research related to cancer. I approached this amendment without preconceived opinions and have read the amendment carefully. I have listened to the arguments on both sides. After sifting through the rhetoric, I have concluded that there is nothing about embryonic stem cells that would indicate that they are better than adult stem cells for curing human disease. In fact, there are many problems with embryonic stem cells, such as rejection and cancer formation. Further, adult stem cell research and therapies do not endanger women who must donate eggs for embryonic stem cells.
These deceptive tactics by the amendment proponents say to me that "you are not intelligent enough to understand the issues so I will intentionally deceive you for your own good."
As a medical professional, I believe that my responsibility is to make sure the public understands the issues so that they can make up their own mind. Thus, my goal in this letter is not to convince you of my personal opinions, but to make sure you have the facts from a doctor and scientist who understands the issues and does not have political or monetary motives.
Some of the most common arguments in favor of the amendment are as follows:
Argument # 1: Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which is the type of process for creating stem cells that is at stake in this amendment, is not human cloning.
MY RESPONSE: When scientists talk about cloning, SCNT is exactly what they are talking about. SCNT is the medical dictionary definition of cloning. The amendment proponents claim that SCNT is not cloning unless the cell is placed into a woman's womb, but that has never been the medical definition of cloning. That is like saying that a nuclear bomb is not a weapon unless it is dropped on people. The potential for harm and abuse is great, even if one does not intend to act on this potential!
The fact is that this amendment not only allows human cloning, it creates a uniquely protected right to perform human cloning!
Argument #2: Embryonic stem cell research has the potential for curing many more diseases than adult stem cells.
MY RESPONSE: There is no scientific evidence for this claim. Many people have been led to believe that we have not yet seen the incredible curative potential of embryonic stem cells because this research is banned. The truth is that embryonic stem cells is not banned and never has been. Embryonic stem cells have been researched for many years and have been reported in the medical literature as early as 1963! And yet, there is no evidence that embryonic stem cells have cured any disease, even in animals.
But what is really frustrating for someone like me who is involved in stem cell research is that the success of adult stem cells is being ignored by the amendment proponents. Advantages of adult stem cells over embryonic stem cells: (1) they are the only stem cells that have been shown to cure disease in animals, (2) they do not require egg extraction and the associated risks to women, (3) they have amazing plasticity (the ability to change into many different cell types) that far exceeds anyone's expectations. For example, stem cells from bone marrow can be turned into brain cells.
If adult stem cells are likely to be just as good, if not better, than embryonic stem cells, why expose women to risky egg extraction and create a huge demand for eggs that will surely end up in the exploitation of poor, disadvantaged women and young, college-aged women with limited financial resources?
Argument #3: SCNT will not endanger women.
MY RESPONSE: To be honest, this is my greatest concern. Despite loud cries to the contrary, the widespread use of SCNT for medical research and treatment will unquestionably jeopardize the health of women, particularly poor disadvantaged women and young, college-age women with limited financial resources who will be tempted to allow themselves to be given synthetic hormones and undergo surgical procedures to extract eggs in exchange for monetary awards. We are not talking about a few hundred cloned embryos, but rather, millions and millions will be needed for this research!. And the need for more eggs will never end. Even if laws are passed to regulate this process, profiteers will undoubtedly go to third world countries to find willing subjects.
Argument #4. How could this amendment be a bad idea when leading scientists and physicians support it?
MY RESPONSE: Many scientists and physicians, including myself, support adult stem cell research, but are deeply concerned about embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. The reason that you do not hear more experts speak out against this amendment is that their voices have been muted.
The amendment proponents have identified one wealthy couple in Kansas City who donated virtually all of the $16 [now nearly $30] million that is being used to saturate the media with pro-amendment information. Meanwhile, those who are concerned about this amendment have been denied the opportunity for public debate and discourse by our medical schools and universities. Suffice to say, the freedom of speech violations at ostensibly liberal universities to suppress voices against this amendment are breathtaking!
If for no other reason, I am deeply disturbed by this amendment because of the deception being used to promote it. For example, Cynthia Kramer, who is running for state office in our district, has used this issue to promote her campaign by implying that her life-threatening disease could have been treated more effectively with embryonic stem cells. After questioning her campaign office and reading the text of many of her interviews and website statements, I can find no evidence for this claim. In reality, she received adult stem cells in the form of a bone marrow transplant, and the fact that she is still alive is evidence that this adult stem cell transplant was successful! When she went to Israel seeking a 'cure' for her disease, they told her to come back to Missouri where she could get the best care available anywhere!
I personally know of many other examples of deliberate deceptions, intentional misinformation, and freedom of speech violations.
My practice focuses on patients with cancer, and I am profoundly wounded when one of them dies of their disease. I am in the trenches every day, and I understand what is at stake. But I am convinced that this amendment is not the right direction for our state. There are much more effective ways we can spend our money and time without endangering women.
We all have to make our own decisions, and democracy only works well if we make those decisions based on facts. Whatever opinion you develop on this issue, I hope that it is based on facts. Please feel free to email me if you have more specific questions or if you would like to talk.
Thanks for your attention.
Bill (and Tonya) Harbour
J. William Harbour, MD
Paul A. Cibis Distinguished Endowed Professor Washington University
School of Medicine St. Louis , Missouri 63110
Monday, October 30, 2006
More Thoughts on Amendment 2 and Its Deceptions
This letter is powerful because this Washington University distinguished endowed professor-physician-scientist changed his mind after reading all 2000 words of Amendment 2.