OF SHARKS AND CLONING: Minnesota and the Politics of fear

By Don C. Reed

When the movie SOUL SURFER came out, I was a little concerned for the safety of sharks.

As a former professional scuba diver for Marine World (1972-87) I swam with sharks on a near-daily basis, and know them to be useful citizens of the sea. By eating the sick fish, sharks prevent the spread of disease, and keep the ocean healthy.

But when the Stephen Spielberg masterpiece JAWS was released, people were so terrified of sharks that they organized “shark derbies” to slaughter as many of the oceanic predators as possible. This was devastating to the ocean, and wherever it was done, disease spread unchecked.

But this time– despite an appealing star, an inspirational true story of courage against all odds, and an actual shark attack– the mass panic and “revenge” slaughter of sharks did not happen. People saw and were moved by the movie, but they did not rush and kill sharks.

Perhaps this different outcome is because people know about sharks now. Like the freeway, the ocean can be dangerous, but it can also be lived with.

I met the author of JAWS, Peter Benchley, and asked him to write something beautiful about the ocean, since he had made so many millions out of making people afraid.

“I did,” he said, “It was a book called GIRL FROM THE SEA OF CORTES– and it did not sell.”

Fear sells.

Similarly, the fear of cloning has been used to sell political candidates, and their agendas. It worked once, but maybe not too often.

Cloning– or rather the fear of it– has been very good for Republican Sam Brownback.

The former Kansas Senator built his name recognition attacking cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Using a semi-scientific vocabulary provided by his friend Dr. David Prentice, Brownback whipped up a frenzy of anti-science fear, endlessly speechifying about cloning and embryonic stem cell research and killing young humans (which never existed)–and he rode the non-existent problem all the way to the Governor’s mansion.

Naturally such success will be copied, as Senator Michelle Fischbach of Minnesota is currently trying to do. She hopes to prohibit exactly the same form of stem cell research Brownback attacked.

Her bill would prohibit cloning today–both good and bad forms of it– and if she succeeds, what will come after that?

First, let’s be clear what she wants to ban.

It is not just reproductive cloning, the never-achieved nightmare of trying to clone Uncle Frank or Aunt Gertrude. Nobody wants that.

She also wants to ban therapeutic cloning to make stem cells.  Our hope for this good kind of cloning is that  it may be able to provide healthy stem cells that the body will not reject– because they are made from the patient.

Here is how the stem cells are obtained.

1.       A cotton swab is scraped across the inside of the patient’s mouth collecting skin cells.
2.       One of these cells is transferred into a human egg, like a woman may lose every month.
3.       Egg and skin cell are placed in salt water, and stimulated with a mild shock of electricity.
4.       Five to seven days go by.
5.       The microscopic egg is opened, and the stem cells are removed.

This is what opponents attack, calling it the murder of “young humans”.

Where? Show me one “young human” in the above process. There are none.
The ingredients are not there. There is no sperm, no implantation in the womb–no womb at all—and no pregnancy.

Without a pregnancy, how can there be a baby?

In California, fast becoming the world center of stem cell research, this form of research is 100% legal.

But aren’t there are other kinds of cloning?

Gardeners clone plants: “cutting a slip” from a plant is cloning. Police may catch a criminal or free an innocent person by cloning DNA in crime scene analysis. Diabetics use injectable insulin which allows them to stay alive—and the making of that insulin involved the cloning of bacteria.

And one nightmare possibility which should never be allowed.

Reproductive cloning tries to do for people what was done to Dolly the cloned sheep. It would involve  making of the skin-cell blastocyst– but then implanting it into the woman’s uterus.

It would risk the lives of both mother and potential child.

Reproductive cloning is as different from therapeutic cloning as lightning is different from the light bulb—in California the same law which allows SCNT also makes reproductive cloning a major crime.

Do reproductive cloning in California, and you will go to jail for ten years, and be fined a million dollars.

Any tool can be abused.  A hammer can be used to hit a neighbor on the head, or to build a house. Should we criminalize hammers because of the possibility that they might be used in a negative way?

Back to Minnesota. The Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota are world-renowned centers of excellence for medical research. Two outstanding stem cell researchers there are Meri Firpo and Dan Kaufman. Both are embryonic stem cell experts: Kaufman specializes on helping the body fight cancer, Firpo develops transplantation therapies for diabetes.

Neither scientist is using SCNT. So why would they care if it was criminalized?

I emailed Dan Kaufman, and asked him just that. He responded:

“…it is important to keep all options available for future directions in stem cell research and therapies. While using SCNT for therapeutics has not yet been done for human cells, it has succeeded in animal models. This may be a viable option in the future. While we (researchers) would have no problem with a ban on reproductive cloning, these Minnesota bills aim to ban all “cloning” without distinguishing therapeutic cloning from reproductive cloning.”

In a recent interview, Dr.  Firpo approached it similarly:

“(The bill) won’t change any actual research that we’re doing now, but it might prevent me from doing research in the future that will allow me to cure diabetes.”
— “Researchers, biomedical industry fear ‘hidden agenda’ of human cloning bill, James Nord, MinnPost.com, March 18, 2011

And there is another reason for concern.

This may be part of an attempt to block the entire field of embryonic stem cell research.

In 2009, the anti-abortion group run by Senator Fischbach’s husband (Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life) successfully passed a two year ban on the research, signed into law by Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, now running for President.

According to the group’s spokesperson, the Fischbach/Dettmer bill is step two.

“This bill takes the next logical step and prohibits cloning altogether, not just the funding of it with tax dollars,” (said) MCCL legislative associate Andrea Rau.”

And what is step three?

“We believe that this bill is a preliminary to another bill which will seek to ban the use of human embryonic stem cells and that really will be disruptive to a number of research programs…,” said Dr. Jonathan Slack, director of the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute…

“Dettmer, the bill’s House author, said he has no current plans to introduce legislation criminalizing embryonic stem cell research, but he left open that possibility, depending on public input…..”
–ibid, James Nord

Somatic cell nuclear transfer is supported by the American Medical Association (AMA), the National Academy of Sciences, the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), the Association of American Universities—and, to the best of my knowledge—every major scientific, medical, and educational organization which has taken a position on the issue.

Which major scientific, medical or educational organization supports either the Brownback or Fischbach bills, and their suppression of research?

I do not know of a single one.

Fischbach knows (she has been publicly told) that her bill would ban both kinds of cloning: one good, and one bad. She knows they are different; she intends to ban them both.

She and her husband Scott Fischbach (executive director of the religious group, Minnesota Citizens Concerned  for Life, or MCCL) are attacking the research  with no apparent regard for accuracy.

Here is her husband speaking.

“We’re going to find cures, and we’re going to find treatments,” he said, “But nobody’s going to get killed as we do it.”
— “Stakes are high in new debate over cloning”, Jenna Ross, StarTribune, March 30, 2011

First, I question Mr. Fischbach’s expertise. Who is the “We” in his “We’re going to find cures” declaration?   Is he a scientist? Has he raised money for stem cell research?

Mr. Fischbach is an anti-abortion activist. That does not qualify him as a stem cell research expert.

And who are the alleged people he refers to in the “nobody’s going to get killed” part of his statement?

Listen to the spokesperson for Mr. Fischbach’s group, MCCL Andrea Rau, describing SCNT.

“Once you have a human embryo, you know, if you were going to try to derive some kind of tissue, you would have to grow that embryo. If you wanted to grow a heart then, you’d have to grow the embryo  and have the whole thing grow, the whole body and then harvest the heart…that’s the only thing you could do with it if you were trying to get a heart from it.” (emphasis added)
–“’Cloning’ ban proponents muddle facts in stem cell debate”, Andy Birkey, Minnesota Independent, March 28, 2011

This is staggeringly false. She is literally saying that the scientists want to grow a baby and cut out its heart.  Is that just gross ignorance, or deliberate duplicity?

And here is Senator Fischbach herself, echoing the misinformation.

“…either you clone a human to make a baby and implant it into a woman or you clone a baby to use it in experiments.” Fischbach is the wife of Scott Fischbach, the executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, a group that is working to draft and pass the bill.”
—Andy Birkey, “Bill to Criminalize embryonic stem cell research…” Minnesota Independent, 03.18.11

Fortunately, Minnesota is America, and the overwhelming majority of Americans support embryonic stem cell research.

Politicians can read polls too.

Therefore, the same people who are trying to shut down stem cell research are simultaneously trying frantically to deny it. It would be almost funny—unless they get away with it.

“A spokesperson for Senator Michelle Fischbach’s office says the proposed human cloning ban only addresses the creation of embryos, not stem cells or research with stem cells.”—  (emphasis added)
–“Mother worries over stem cell research bill”, University of MN KSTP  4/9/2011

But the bill states: “It is unlawful…to….receive for any purpose an embryo produced by human cloning or any product derived from such an embryo…” (emphasis added).
–“Legislators seek to make embryonic stem cell research a felony”—Andy Birkey, Minnesota Independent, 4/09.2011

Stem cells are the “product derived” from SCNT. Stem cells are the reason for SCNT.

If Ms. Fischbach’s spokesperson is correct, however, the Senator would have no problem with an amendment stating that nothing in her bill  affect stem cell research—but when offered that amendment, and another to separate the two kinds of cloning, she instantly said no to both.

There may be a political reason behind all this.

By treating a 5-day-old blastocyst as if it was a human being, the Fischbachs may be attempting to impose a “personhood” definition of life into law.

If a microscopic bit of tissue in a Petri can be granted the full legal rights of a citizen, what does that do to a woman’s reproductive freedoms?

The Fischbachs’ longterm goal is plainly to overthrow Roe V. Wade, the Supreme Court decision protecting a woman’s right to choose.

Roe V. Wade established viability as the standard of legal humanity. If a baby can live on its own, delivered from the mother’s womb, then it becomes a legal person.

But if “personhood” can be moved back to microscopic cells in a dish of salt water….

Personhood supporters (such as the Fischbachs appear to be) seem willing to allow millions to suffer needless agony, as long as they win their political point.

“It’s the agenda of (Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life) and the pro-life movement to move the line of where human conception begins,” said (Senator Ron) Latz–—“Minnesota ban on tax-funded stem cell research passes House, Senate” Andy Birkey, 03.30.11, Minnesota Independent

What about the rest of Minnesota, like education, medicine, and business—what do they think about the Fischbach bill?

“…the University of Minesota, the Mayo Clinic, and the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota are recommending against (Fischbach’s bill)’s passage. When it comes to scientific, medical and business acumen, it’s hard to name a more powerful trio of voices…”
–“Cloning ban will force many assets out of state”—Times Editorial Board, www.sctimes.com, March 29,2011

Is the research itself worth fighting for? Nobody can predict the future.

But listen to the late Republican President Gerald Ford:

“therapeutic cloning, more precisely known as somatic cell nuclear transfer…holds limitless potential to improve or extend life for 130 million Americans now suffering from some chronic or debilitating condition.  …a ban on all cloning…is slamming the door to lifesaving cures and treatments merely because they are new.

“… 40 Nobel laureates warned that such legislation “would foreclose the legitimate use of nuclear transplantation… and impede progress against some of the most debilitating diseases known to man.

“During my Presidency, similar questions were raised about research into recombinant DNA….A quarter century later, would anyone turn back the clock? Would anyone discard vaccines traceable to recombinant DNA research?”

–“Curing, not cloning”, Gerald R. Ford, Washington Post, June 5, 2002

Or former President Jimmy Carter, speaking about the anti-SCNT bill earlier shoved through the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, without a single public hearing…

“To President George W. Bush,

“I have learned of the Brownback-Landrieu Senate Bill and H.R.  2505 in the House of Representatives, both of which propose criminalizing all cloning. If they are passed as written, these pieces of legislation would mean a serious setback to medical research.

“One of the great scientific accomplishments of our time, therapeutic cloning, or nuclear transplantation, presents promising new opportunities for the treatment of many serious illnesses and injuries that have long plagued the world. These include heart disease, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injury just to name a few.

“Though I fully support banning reproductive cloning, I strongly oppose any restrictions on therapeutic cloning….


Jimmy Carter

And First Lady Nancy Reagan, in an open letter to Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah:

“Dear Orrin,

As you may know, Ronnie will observe his ninety-second birthday soon. In earlier times, we would have been able to celebrate that day with great joy and wonderful memories of our life together. Now, while I can draw strength from these memories, I do it alone, as Ronnie struggles in a world unknown to me or the scientists who devote their lives to Alzheimer’s research. Because of this, I am determined to do what I can to save other families from this pain.

“I’m writing, therefore, to offer my support for stem cell research and to tell you I’m in favor of new legislation to allow the ethical use of therapeutic cloning. Like you, I support a complete ban on reproductive cloning. However, I believe that embryonic stem cell research, under appropriate guidelines, may provide our scientists with many answers that are now beyond our grasp.

Orrin, there are so many diseases that can be cured, or at least helped, that we can’t turn our back on this. We’ve lost so much time already. I can’t bear to lose any more.”

–Office of Nancy Reagan  January 29, 2003

It is to be hoped that Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton (D) will use his veto power to block the Fischbach/Dettmer anti-stem cell research legislation, whether brought as separate legislation, or imbedded in another law.

Only knowledge and determination can block the politics of fear.

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