Update on stem cell culture war: from Pepsi to Personhood & Romney to rogue clinics

For years now we’ve had a war in the world of stem cells.

The war has been primarily centered on embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).

The reason I call it a “war” is that opponents of ESCR have declared a “culture war” on ESCR and ESC researchers.

I don’t like the term “war”, but if someone declares war on you or acts like they are at war with you, it would be foolish to ignore that. Look at Pearl Harbor.

In 2012 it’s become clear that the stem cell world has gotten significantly more complicated and new players have become involved.

It’s not so simple anymore as supporters of ESCR vs. anti-ESCR even though that dynamic had enough complexity and nuances. It’s not just that the opponents of ESCR are invoking more myths such as the idea that there are stem cells in Pepsi.

Today, the stem cell war has other parties with their own agendas.

We have now the personhooders. These folks are pushing the “personhood” idea that as states and as a nation, we must codify the narrow moral or ethical precept that a person begins at the moment of conception. According to their way of thinking the single-celled fertilized egg has the same rights as you the person reading this blog. Of course in the personhood worldview, ESCR is wrong, but they also want to criminalize abortion and contraception as well. Are the personhooders the same as the anti-ESCR folks? There’s certainly a lot of overlap, but not entirely. Interestingly there are some different folks that add some complexity. The idea of personhood has been around quite a while, but I believe it is more significant today because seemingly “mainstream” Republican leaders such as Romney have signed onto that cause and we are seeing more initiative efforts at the state level.

Within the stem cell war, we now also have what I will call the “dubious” or rogue clinics. By this, I mean the point-of-care, for-profit clinics that operate largely outside the scope of any laws or FDA regulations…at least that is their hope. Almost without exception these clinics sell adult stem cell treatments and for that reason they have been drawn into the culture war aspect.

Interestingly, the dubious for-profits and their advocates largely, but not exclusively side with the anti-ESCR folks. I think their reasoning goes that anything that is bad for ESCR must be good for adult stem cells, but that is a myth. Even so we see anti-ESCR almost desperately pushing every adult stem cell success as though it is at the same time a blow to ESCR. In the real world what is good for adult stem cell research is good for ESCR and vice versa. Also what is bad for one type of stem cell research may impede other types. The notion that there exists and must be this antagonism between ESCR and adult stem cell research, no matter how off base, nonetheless is very harmful.

Then we also have the “intellectuals” who claim that for ethical rather than moral reasons ESCR should be opposed. A prime example of these folks are the Witherspoon Group who write highfalutin stuff about stem cells (and even once cited this blog as a bad example..what a compliment!)

Romney seems adrift in the sea when it comes to stem cell research.

Apparently he’s now against ESCR and in favor of personhood, but what would he do if he became President?

Who knows, but at best he might support adult stem cell research and be moderately against ESCR. At worst, he’ll catalyze a major setback for the stem cell field more generally and science via restricting NIH and NSF funding. I hope we never get to the point of a Romney presidency to find out….

1 Comment


  1. Romney and his pals in the 1% don’t actually care much about abortion, gay issues, guns, religion, or stem cells one way or the other. But they need to create reliable voting blocs to help them win elections, and their strategy has been to use the social issues to rally the cultural conservatives to the GOP side. The real agenda is another tax cut for Mitt and the evisceration of government rules and regulations that might impact the Koch Brothers. It’s a very transparent game, and their clueless followers still haven’t figured it out. The little old lady in Kansas casts her ballot for GOP candidates because she’s been told she is supposed to hate and fear gay people, but the net result is that a hedge fund manager somewhere gets a reduced capital gains rate.

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