Obama and the Politics of Biotechnology

Question: How has Obama changed George W. Bush-era stances toward bioethics?

Lee Silver: The Bush Administration had a very extreme view on bioethics. Essentially they were taking the line of people who claim that single cell embryos, which are invisible to the eye, should have the same rights as you or me. That's an extreme view. It's not a view that most Americans hold. Scientists were arguing that they could take these single cells, embryos at this very early stage, when the embryo [which] you can create in a petri dish to help women overcome infertility, but if you just work with these cells in a petri dish, the cells can't form a fetus. They can't form anything resembling a fetus or a human being, all they can do is grow into a bunch. It's a very nice line. Scientists can work with cells in a petri dish and say, okay you can work with these cells, they're not human beings. We’re going to work with them in a petri dish for research purposes to try to find cures for diseases. That's what scientists would like, that's what many leaders of the Democratic Party would like, sure. There's a line. You don't go across it, but it's a nice line as far as science goes because what you create in a petri dish is not a person. It can't be a person.

The Obama Administration has advisors like Cal Varmis and Eric Lander. Those are his two top science advisers, those are leaders of the field of biotechnology, and the view that I just gave you is the view that they hold. They have influence in the administration now and I think they will get the administration to slowly go in a direction which will support research in this way.

Question: What real-world impact has Obama has on the field of bioethics so far?

Lee Silver: The real world impact that Obama is having should be looked at in contrast to the real world impact that Bush had. During the Bush Administration it wasn't that human embryo research was illegal, embryo research was not illegal, generally speaking if you use private money, [but] you couldn't use government funds for research except in [an] extremely limited way. That set up an environment, an investment environment, of how people thought of what science was acceptable or not acceptable in which the top scientists in the world, some of them, went to other countries. Singapore had a great influx of American scientists, China is getting the Chinese expatriates back, and California decided it was going to be the state that funded embryo research. I have a student who studied this and found that the flow of young people to California was enormous. A student would get their PhD and then they would go to California.

It's interesting what Obama has done already [to] change the environment. People understand that there are not going to be religious fanatics breaking down the doors anymore. It's slowly getting to the point where research will be completely acceptable on cells in a petri dish. The environment has already changed. The losers are Singapore and California because California no longer has this unique position. Scientists realize that they can go to other places and be confident that their research won't be outlawed.

Question: What do you make of Obama calling cloning “intolerable”?

Lee Silver: The word "cloning,” or term "human cloning" is a very unfortunate term in that it means something totally different to scientists than it means in the way the public understands the word. This is actually one of many examples of words that have specific scientific meanings [that] get distorted when those words go out into the public sphere. Cloning is one of those words. Cloning is a word unlike most scientific words, which was defined by a scientist in a publication to mean a very specific thing. Used in the context of botany, it was the idea that you could take a cutting from a plant, a cutting clone means twig. You could grow that plant. The second one you could grow cutting from that. That was cloning because you were getting a series of plants, which were genetically identical to each other, and they wanted a word that explained that. Plants were not being produced sexually. That word became a part of the lexicon of molecular biologists about bacteria cloning all the time. I give you a clone you give me a clone, that's the way lab people talk. Then it burst into the public limelight with Dolly, [the] cloned sheep. People do not understand that the scientific meaning of the word does not mean identical organisms and that there actually are already millions, if not tens of millions of human clones walking among us and talking to us. We don't call them clones we call them identical twins. Identical twins are clones according to the scientific definition of the term.

So when people are fearful of human cloning, that's not what they're thinking about. They’re thinking about stealing somebody's soul, or replicating a person in their wholeness and that is actually impossible according to the laws of physics as we understand them.

Question: What should be the role of Obama’s new bioethics panel?

Lee Silver: It’s very interesting to ask what the goal of the bioethics panel is because it's not clear what a bioethics panel should do. A bioethics panel could serve to give advice to the President, or to Congress, or it could serve as a means for educating the public. Two bioethics panels that have had any weight, the one that President Clinton formed, and the one that President Bush formed, were formed for different purposes. I would like the Obama bioethics commission to be more like the Clinton commission. The Clinton commission is chaired by Princeton University President, Harold Shapiro. He was an economist and Clinton brought him in because he didn't know any bioethics or biotechnology, he put together any committee of well-known legal scholars, and he had public policy people, and economists, and he had some representatives from religion. The point there was really to educate rather than suggest laws.

The Bush commission, their point was to push a particular viewpoint on people. It was stacked with people who believed that a single cell embryo is a human being. The commission was run by Leon Kass and it had other people like Robert George, who is my colleague. The whole point of that commission was to convince the American public that this was unethical. The Obama commission, I hope, will be more like the Clinton commission [and will] bring in people from different fields that have a scholarly discussion—not to stop [the] debate, but to have a discussion which brings light onto the topic, and also light on where the disagreements are. Nobody disagrees that human beings deserve human rights. The disagreement in terms of human embryo research or stem cell research come down to, is the cell a human being or not? That's a religious question and we have to get the public to understand, that's the disagreement. It's a very specific question that's religious in basis.

Recorded on:  September 11, 2009

To Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Policy Lee Silver, Obama represents a big step in the right direction for biotech, but there is still a ways to go. He provides his advice to Obama on forming a bioethics panel and changing the language of the debate.

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