Scientific debates best left to states

April 05, 2002|By Curt Civin and Samuel Rosenberg

FEDERAL legislation is not always best for regulating controversial issues. Where no national consensus exists and the debate is polarized, we should follow Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' suggestion that states be allowed to act as "laboratories of democracy."

Regulation of stem cell and cloning research should be conducted this way.

Most scientists, and most Americans, are uncomfortable with the risks that might accompany "reproductive cloning" of humans. Yet support for "therapeutic cloning" research is widespread -- though not unanimous -- because of its potential to develop technologies that might someday provide new organs or tissues for patients with debilitating or fatal conditions.

State governments, including Maryland's, should devise their own regulations for "cloning" research aimed at developing new therapies. Once experience proves that a state law or policy is effective, other states, and the federal government, could emulate it. This is the way states often contribute to generating a proven regulatory framework for the country.

Despite the rushed feeling that we must have a federal policy covering all stem cell research, there is plenty of time for legislative experimentation in the states. We are a long way from the scientific understanding required for successful reproductive cloning of humans. Likewise, the clinical application of cloning therapies is years off. At this stage, developing the relevant science for either approach is more an uphill climb than a "slippery slope."

Sentiment and ethical arguments against reproductive cloning of humans are strong. The likelihood is that any such cloning attempts would be unsuccessful at best, horrifying at worst. That's why there ought to be a national prohibition on such research.

But such legislation should also encourage federal sponsorship of forums to investigate, consider and debate responses to reproductive cloning. After all, discoveries in test tubes and animals will, many years hence, make reproductive cloning a possibility. We need to be prepared.

Therapeutic cloning research is a totally different matter. There's no public consensus. That's why we should leave decisions on allowing such research to the states.

The potential medical benefits are huge. Scientific research might lead to therapeutic cloning that solves the terrible shortage of organs for transplant operations. The study of therapeutic cloning will improve our understanding of the processes regulating human development -- a scientific quest as important as sequencing the human genome. This could result in advances that are currently unimaginable.

Stem cells and related biomedical research represent huge economic opportunities for states, first in research dollars and jobs, then in new medical products. Permitting therapeutic stem cell research in Maryland could even attract grants, investments, companies and jobs from states that might choose to ban the research.

Since the biomedical industry in this state already employs 50,000 workers at institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and 280 private-sector companies, Marylanders should take special interest in legislation regulating the study of stem cells. We must speak up before the federal government pre-empts our right to decide whether therapeutic cloning research is right for us.

The House already has passed a bill prohibiting such research, and the Senate is considering a similar measure. Maryland should, instead, take its cue from California, which is debating legislation that would permit therapeutic cloning research while prohibiting reproductive cloning. We should exercise our responsibility and right to define laws and policies in the best interest of this state's citizens and institutions, in particular by allowing and regulating research into therapeutic cloning.

Maryland and other states would be well served by demonstrating that the federal government need not act precipitously and that the "laboratories of democracy" are alive and flourishing.

Curt Civin is professor of oncology and pediatrics at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. Del. Samuel Rosenberg is a Baltimore City Democrat.

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