FW: Bush's stem cell policy - 'the privatisation of life itself'
jcraven at clark.edu
Mon Sep 10 17:30:43 MDT 2001
Bush's Stem Cell Policy - A Biological Confidence Game
By Huck Gutman
September 8, 2001; DAWN, Pakistan's leading English
On the streets of America's larger cities small-time
scoundrels used to play a game called 'three-card
monte.' The game used three cards, one an ace. The
cards were displayed face up to onlookers, then turned
downwards and shifted around. After a short period of
such shifting, onlookers were asked to point out the
ace. They eagerly bet money on their certainty that
they knew which downward-facing card was the ace. The
betting onlooker invariably guessed wrongly: What
seemed to be the ace would turn out to be another card,
the ace turning up where it was not expected. As the
old saying goes, the hand is quicker than the eye.
This summer, in the slow hot months when the Congress
looked toward its long recess and the American
president dreamt about a month's vacation on his Texas
ranch, the biggest issue in American politics concerned
something called stem-cell research. The issue was a
major one - more on that follows - but the central fact
beneath the political machinations was, like the ace in
a game of three-card monte, hard to follow. The real
issue was not where it was expected to be. Those who
watched the game saw one thing: a debate about ethics
and health. What was really going on, the political
hand being quicker than the eye, was something quite
different. Cui bono is an old Latin saying: Who
benefits? That was the question which was almost never
There is a widespread hope that through researching
stem cells, and figuring out how to turn on the
appropriate switches, scientists might be able to
discover more than how heart muscles are made.
Scientists might also discover how to make cells in a
laboratory which, when injected into a person who has
suffered a heart attack, will repair his/her damaged
heart. Stem cells, then, may be the foundation of what
could be a medical revolution. Already there is talk
about a cure for Parkinson's disease and diabetes, a
capacity to reverse organ damage and paralysis.
But the possibility of such stem cell research in
America ran into a problem. Stem cells are 'harvested'
from embryos in the first stage of existence. Those
embryos have had a specific source. When American
couples have difficulty conceiving a child, they can
turn to artificial insemination, in which egg and sperm
are joined in the laboratory and allowed to develop
through mitosis until a viable embryo can be inserted
into the womb of the mother. The process of artificial
insemination depends on redundancy: it often takes
several tries to get a successful implantation, so many
embryos are created.
Thus, for every successfully implanted embryo, there
are several other embryos that are not implanted. These
are kept frozen, until the infertile couple is sure
they want not more children. It is these 'left-over'
embryos which are the source of the stem cells on which
scientists have been experimenting. Scientists don't
need a new embryo for each experiment.
The specific problem for American science is that
abortion is a politically explosive issue. Anti-
abortion forces maintain that life begins at
conception, so that any 'destruction' of an embryo to
harvest stem cells is murder and hence unconscionable.
Other forces want a cure for Alzheimer's disease, a
remedy for spinal injuries and brain damage, new ways
to bring richness and dignity to the lives of those who
have bodily illness or injury. Both groups,
antiabortion and pro-medical research, are on the side
of 'life.' Both sides are opposed to one another.
In the midst of this controversy, President George W.
Bush had to decide whether the federal government would
allow its massive funding of scientific research to be
used for work on stem cells. Science and the majority
of the medical establishment, plus a majority of
Americans, were on one side. The antiabortion forces,
which had won him the Republican presidential
nomination over his opponent John McCain, were on the
Mr. Bush, amid great media scrutiny, had to choose
which side of the stem-cell research debate he would
support. In a seemingly bold move that almost no one
foresaw, he decided to take a middle route. Mr. Bush
agreed that there would be no more destruction of human
life to harvest stem cells, no matter how life-saving
those cells might be. But because some stem cells had
already been harvested, this fait accompli could be the
basis of generating future stem cells by laboratory
propagation. It was at the time hailed as a brilliant
compromise, in which Mr. Bush gave something to each
Since that moment, though, the efficacy of the
compromise has crumbled. Mr. Bush seems to have sold
out his antiabortion constituency by saying that he
would not allow future 'murder' but that the fruits of
past 'murder' would be allowable.
Proponents of stem-cell research, too, have found the
decision increasingly unsatisfactory. Mr. Bush claimed
that there were sixty stem cell 'lines' in existence,
and that they would be ample for research. At first
investigators were only able to locate 23 or 24 lines,
although more recent figures indicate there may be
sixty lines, world-wide. But some of them may prove
useless for experimentation. Additionally, many medical
scientists have expressed concern that such a limited
number of lines may not give physicians room to cope
with the frequent rejection of cells which do not
closely match those of the recipient.
Still, Mr. Bush weathered the political storm of the
moment. But the whole controversy, like a game of three
card-monte, directed the public eye to the wrong card.
The ace was hidden somewhere else: cui bono? The debate
about research and stem-cell lines obscured rather than
revealed what was most fundamentally at issue.
Every patent gives the patent holder the right to
prevent other people or institutions from making, or
using, or selling, their invention. US patent number
6,200,806, held by the University of Wisconsin, claims
the human stem cell as intellectual property. The
patent thus gives the University of Wisconsin control
over who can work with stem cells and for what purpose.
Further, the university in turn licensed many rights to
this patent to a private enterprise, Geron Corporation.
Geron has all rights to develop stem cells into liver,
muscle, nerve, pancreas, blood and bone cells. Geron
has also claimed rights to another twelve derivative
"This company is going to dominate regenerative
medicine," says Dr, Thomas Okarna, president of Geron.
"It is what I came here to do." Explaining further,
Okarna says, "I'm not apologetic about our intellectual
property. We paid for it, we earned it and we deserve
"We paid for it, we earned it and we deserve it." What
Dr. Okarna is talking about are the generative cells in
each and every human embryo, the cells that make human
muscles, bones, blood, nerves, livers. This small
California corporation is laying claim to the building
blocks of human life - a shared human heritage, a
shared global heritage. Dr. Okarna believes he owns,
and has the right to profit from, anything which is
derived by scientific experiment on the human body. He
owns our biological potential, yours and mine.
His claim is not very different from that of another
American company, RiceTec, which in 1997 patented
Basmati rice. Basmati rice, developed in India and
Pakistan over many centuries by the millions of people
who inhabit and farm in Punjab, is the shared resource
of a whole people. The attempt to patent it for private
ownership by a corporation - an attempt just recently
circumscribed, but not foiled - has been termed a
"theft of indigenous plant wealth" by activist Vandana
Shiva. The companies seeking to patent life forms are
by no means only American, Syngenta and Aventis being
the two most prominent of the European corporations
patenting plant germ plasma.
Nor is Dr. Okarna's attempt different from successful
efforts by various corporations to patent parts of the
human genome. Already, many corporations have patents
on individual human genes. The chemical instructions,
the genetic codes, that make us who and what we are,
which create not just beating hearts and functioning
lungs, but the length of one's eyelashes, the tint of
one's skin, the particular shape of each finger: these
are in the process of being patented. Increasingly, our
own genes do not belong to us. The genes are in us, but
we do not own the right to use or exploit them for any
What is taking place is the largest game of three-card
monte in our post-modern times. As Americans, and
others in the world, argue about the ethics of modern
research, corporations are buying up the rights to
every biological process and to every life form.
Capitalist speculation has found the mother lode of all
investment. What is going on is nothing less than the
privatization of life itself.
If scientists do succeed with stem-cell research and
find a cure for diabetes, stroke, heart disease and
nerve damage, the price will be exorbitant. Monopolies
can set whatever price they wish. The potential of our
own human bodies will be sold back to us - for those
who can afford it - at an enormous cost. That is the
hidden ace in the three-card monte: The life process
itself is being patented, for the purpose of generating
profits, as the 'intellectual property' of one
corporation or another.
Only when the game is unmasked and citizens worldwide
see that their common biological heritage and indeed
their own bodies are being stolen from them, can
nations move forward to develop new international
protocols on intellectual property. Surely such
protocols are urgently needed.
The writer is a regular columnist for The Statesman
(Kolkata) and Professor of English at the University of
© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2001
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