Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stem Cell Research: Nebraska Politics: Lathrop for Nobel Prize

Dr. Sheryl Pitner, president of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research, has submitted this column to the Omaha World-Herald.

Alert the Nobel Prize people to State Sen. Steve Lathrop, negotiator of a compromise bill on cloning and embryonic stem cell research in Nebraska. He dared to search for common ground between the two sides in this debate.

Our side wanted a complete ban on cloning as proposed in Legislative Bill 700. The other side was willing to consider a partial ban, but not LB 700.

I’m going to do something I hate doing – use the false distinction in cloning between “reproductive” and “therapeutic.”

There is one cloning procedure. It’s called somatic cell nuclear transfer. It produces embryos.

The reproductive/therapeutic distinction is made after cloning is accomplished and a new human embryo exists. Pro-cloners say it’s bad to let such embryos live (reproductive cloning), but it’s good to destroy them to harvest their stem cells for research (therapeutic cloning).

Sen. Lathrop wanted something accomplished on cloning, but he did not think LB 700 would pass. Society generally opposes reproductive cloning, Sen. Lathrop reasoned, but public opinion is split on therapeutic cloning, and that split is reflected in the Legislature. Perhaps a partial ban on therapeutic cloning would be achievable.

Sen. Lathrop offered a compromise bill with a total ban on reproductive cloning (including a criminal penalty) and a partial ban on therapeutic cloning (with no criminal penalty). The bill banned cloning for any purpose in public facilities, but left open the possibility of therapeutic cloning in the private sector.

Our side would prefer a total ban on therapeutic cloning, but “compromise” means you don’t get everything you want, and the obvious and immediate threat is in the public sector.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center has emphasized cloning and its importance to embryonic stem cell research in legislative hearing testimony in 2005 and 2007, at a UNMC Mini Medical School for the public in 2006, and in a 2007 World-Herald Midlands Voices column about UNMC’s role in the cloned monkey project in Oregon.

Current University of Nebraska Board of Regents guidelines prohibit cloning and destruction of embryos for research at UNMC. Nationally, though, pro-cloners are pushing for therapeutic cloning. Missouri joined the movement in 2006. Iowa lifted a statutory ban last year.

So our side was willing to consider a partial ban on therapeutic cloning that would prohibit the procedure at the only institution in Nebraska known to possibly have the ability and desire to try it.

The sticking point in negotiations was the permissive treatment of therapeutic cloning (allowed in private sector and no criminal penalty for violation in public sector) compared to reproductive cloning (total ban plus criminal penalty). Pro-life groups could not support putting into state law the idea that letting cloned humans live is worse than destroying them for research.

The answer was to remove the ban on reproductive cloning, a major concession made by Sen. Lathrop despite his concern about narrowing the scope of the cloning ban.

Under the compromise bill, UNMC can continue doing research with certain embryonic stem cells subject to restrictions by the regents and federal guidelines, but cannot engage in cloning or destruction of embryos. The bill also directs funding to UNMC and Creighton University for non-embryonic stem cell research.

Meanwhile, UNMC can build on its nationally recognized success in adult stem cell research. It could pursue research on turning regular body cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. It could benefit from proposed legislation promoting the banking of umbilical cord blood for adult stem cells.

State Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the legislative committee dealing with this issue, deserves credit for his behind-the-scenes efforts to keep the issue alive. State Sen. Mike Flood, speaker of the Legislature, monitored the situation from an appropriate distance, then applied his deal-making skills in crunch time to bring the compromise to fruition.

And let’s not forget State Sen. Mark Christensen, introducer of LB 700. It might have been safer politically, and more satisfying personally, to push ahead with LB 700 even if defeat was virtually certain. Instead, Sen. Christensen handled a difficult situation gracefully and helped make compromise possible.

Ethical concerns have been addressed while leaving the way clear for robust progress in stem cell research. Well done, legislators.

1 comment:

OmaSteak said...

Congratulations on an effective lobbying effort Chip. Now if you were just as effective lobbying the County Assessor to make public the exact calculations used to produce a home valuation. LOL!!!