The Defining Problem

Defining scientific terms for political reasons is bad for both sides of the debate.

Sam Berger and Jonathan Moreno explain why altering scientific definitions for political ends is bad for both sides of the stem cell debate.

Ongoing stem cell research and cloning debates in Kansas and other states highlight a new frontier in the stem cell debate: attempts to define scientific terms for political advantage.

The federal government’s inaction has left a void in overarching scientific guidelines and regulation. State-level opponents of stem cell research are trying to fill that void with altered scientific terminology that conflates human beings and embryos and overbroad definitions of human cloning. These efforts to politically define complicated biological terms often results in ill-conceived laws that satisfy neither opponents nor supporters, confuse scientists attempting to pursue research in the state, and may even create legal problems for those attempting to conduct cooperative studies across state lines.

Two recent bills passed out of committee in the Kansas House of Representatives are particularly egregious examples of the political manipulation of scientific terminology. Advocates of the first bill, H.B. 2098, claim it is an attempt “to define terms related to human cloning.” Yet in reality, it’s an attempt to politically redefine terms to help opponents of stem cell research.

The definitions put forward in H.B. 2098 do not reflect those used by other states or by scientists themselves. And, at the committee hearing many of the definitions were criticized by Paul Terranova, Vice Chancellor for Research at Kansas University Medical Center, for being scientifically inaccurate.

The bill seeks to broadly define human cloning as encompassing both reproductive cloning to create a human being and somatic cell nuclear transfer, a technique that scientists use to create cloned embryonic stem cells. The definition may make sense for opponents of embryonic stem cell research who believe that embryos are human beings, but there is also a tactical reason for the position—while 68 percent of Kansans support somatic cell nuclear transfer, there is also strong opposition to reproductive cloning. Opponents hope to ban SCNT by lumping the two procedures together in the public mind.

The companion bill H.B. 2255 is a demonstration of just this strategy. Using identical definitions to those in H.B. 2098, the bill seeks to ban public funding for “human cloning to create a cloned embryo,” defined as SCNT.

What advocates of H.B. 2255 and H.B. 2098 are not telling people is that  SCNT could be a critical component of efforts to find cures through embryonic stem cell research. The process allows scientists to use an adult cell (such as a skin cell) and an enucleated, unfertilized egg to create stem cells with the same DNA as the donor. No fertilization or conception occurs. The advantage of these genetically identical stem cells is that they would pose less risk of rejection when used in patients. These stem cells would also allow scientists to better study the progression of specific diseases and provide more efficient means of testing new drugs.

Even ignoring the ban on funding for SCNT, which would subvert the will of the people of Kansas and prevent scientists in the state from pursuing cures with the best tools available, the bill is simply a poor piece of legislation. It defines an embryo as “the developing organism from the time of fertilization until significant differentiation has occurred, when the organism becomes known as a fetus or an organism in the early stages of development.” This definition, when considered alongside other references to the “human organism” in the bill, seems intended to blur the line between human beings and embryos.

Unfortunately, the vagueness of the definition also blurs the distinction between a fetus and an embryo. The legislation could be read as stripping away protections for what scientists consider an early stage fetus because it would legally be considered an embryo in Kansas. Certainly the proponents of this bill would not intend this effect, and neither opponents nor proponents of the legislation would condone weakening research protections for the fetus. But by relying on politics instead of science when defining technical terms, legislators may open the door to a whole host of unintended consequences, such as making fetuses more vulnerable to potentially harmful research.

Not all state efforts to regulate cloning rely on troublesome scientific definitions. Missouri’s stem cell ballot initiative that passed in 2006 banned reproductive cloning but not SCNT, although conservatives attempted to conflate the two during and after the campaign. And there are bills working their way through the legislatures in Minnesota and Iowa that do the same, banning reproductive cloning while allowing SCNT.

Yet even well-meaning bills can run into trouble due to lack of federal leadership. Take, for example, the Iowa bill to remove restrictions on SCNT while still banning reproductive cloning. The bill accurately defines all the scientific terms, but it does not establish an institutional review board or stem cell research oversight committee to review research proposals using SCNT in the state. As there are currently inadequate federal regulations for embryonic stem cell research, this may technically allow the use of SCNT for research that has little merit or is inappropriate for other reasons.

There is little reason to suspect that reputable scientists would conduct inappropriate research, and the scientific community has established standards for itself. But there are no good reasons for stem cell research to be so inadequately regulated by the federal government.

The National Academies, charged with advising the federal government and public on science issues, has created voluntary guidelines for embryonic stem cell research. These guidelines not only outline the procedures for ethical embryonic stem cell research, but also provide a comprehensive definition of terms that are accepted by every major research body in the U.S. By adopting these regulations and definitions, the federal government can go a long way toward minimizing confusion and maximizing effective and ethical stem cell research. We need our legislators, both state and federal, to be focusing on advancing policy, not politicizing scientific terminology to advance ideological goals.

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Sam Berger

Former Vice President, Democracy and Government Reform

Jonathan D. Moreno

Senior Fellow