The Stem Cell Wars: a Report from the Front

At a recent East Bay meeting, Raymond Barglow, a member of East Bay DSA, reported on his battle experiences.  The "battle in  question" revolves around legislation that the U.S. Senate is expected to take up this month (June) which would ban the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research purposes.  The technical name for this procedure is "somatic cell nuclear transfer," or SCNT.  This procedure has been dubbed "theapeutic cloning," which is the way it is often referred to by the media.  Therapeutic cloning needs to be distinguished from "reproductive cloning," which would use SCNT to create an embryo that would be implanted in a womb to produce a human baby.

It is useful to read two essays on this subject that have been posted to the Web (and will be published in the forthcoming issue of Tikkun Magazine.). Also, the June 17, 2002 Nation has an editorial ("Attack of the Anti-Cloners") on the subject.

If you have any questions to ask or comments to make, you may wish to contact Raymond Barglow at .

Together with Richard Arvedon from Hartford Connecticut, Raymond has been organizing opposition to the Senate proposal to ban therapeutic cloning research.  Recently he emailed about 35,000 messages to educators and researchers affiliated with medical schools throughout the country, asking for their support on this issue, including their signature on a petition opposing the criminalization of therapeutic cloning.  About 750 of these academic docs have signed the petition to date.

On the other side of this issue, urging the banning of SCNT, is the religious right.  Unfortunately their effort has been abetted by some progressives and environmentalists, including Jeremy Rifkin, Bill McKibben, and a number of other left leaders whom many of us have respected over the past several decades.

The two essays are Rifkin's anti-cloning screed and Raymond's reply.  At the Internet site where they are accessible, you will also find a brief recounting of how Raymond became enlisted in the ferocious debates about innocent stem cells.  (Rifkin threatened to sue Tikkun Magazine if it published Raymond's article in its original form.  The magazine's editors almost caved in to this threat.)

If you've done this reading carefully, you will have an introductory understanding of the basic procedures of embryonic stem cell research in general, and of therapeutic cloning in particular.

You may want to begin with the 2nd half of Raymond's article, since it explains, using some pretty good diagrams, the basic procedures involved in embryonic stem cell research.

People like Jeremy Rifkin are right to ask basic questions about the priorities and governance of cutting edge technologies, including those developed and used in biomedical research.  Stem cell experimentation, for example, is a complex, multifaceted enterprise that advances at the frontiers of scientific understanding. How can it be made to conform to democratically arrived-at norms of social responsibility?  How can lay persons, lacking expertise in specialized scientific/technological domains, intelligently evaluate the research approaches that scientists come up with?

Progressives have faced this quandary many times before -- in our opposition to the nuclear power industry for instance.  In arriving at our judgments about the advisability of using complex technologies, we rely a lot upon the views of authorities who are respected within progressive/environmentalist circles -- upon “our” experts, whom we take to be more conscientious and less aligned with profit-seeking interests than are the advocates on “the other side.”  Rifkin drew up a petition to oppose SCNT and successfully "convinced" 67 other progressives/environmentalists to sign it.  They relied mainly on his judgment to form their own.  It is pretty clear, Raymond believes, that hardly any of these signers really knew what they were committing themselves to.

In the domain of biotechnology, which deploys methods of cellular and molecular investigation that most of us know little or nothing about, how are we to figure out which pathways are ethically and politically acceptable?  We may accept the guidance of  people like Jeremy Rifkin who have considerable specialized knowledge.  But we would be mistaken to do so.   We cannot blindly trust the “experts,” even when they espouse values that we believe in.

The current stem cell debate illustrates progressives' predicament: how to get reliable information  on issues that we haven't carefully investigated ourselves.  We on the left sometimes get this wrong.  The instances of such misjudgment that we might discuss and learn from are diverse:

1. Our insuffuciently critical stance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and Chinese Communist regimes of the past century.

2. The judgment, advanced from time-to-time by Marxist economists (e.g. Monthly Review) that  capitalism -- on a nation-state or global level -- is undergoing a "crisis."

3. NATO invention in Kosovo.  The Left was profoundly divided about this military action.  A  considerable amount of misinformation (e.g. discounting Serbian war crimes committed in Kosovo prior to the NATO intervention) circulated among progressives in this country and worldwide.  See the website:

4. The current stem cell "wars," in which some progressives have allied themselves with the religious right in a kind of crusade against bioscience.