The Global Politics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Science

By Salter, Brian | Global Governance, April-June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Global Politics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Science


Salter, Brian, Global Governance


In a rapidly evolving political landscape, the global politics of human embryonic stem cell science are driven by the several polarities of its immense promise and uncertainty as a vehicle for the treatment of disease, its economic potential and risk, and its cultural attractions and challenges. The international competition between states for scientific and economic advantage in HESC science must deal with the sensitivities of both consumer and financial markets to the moral status of the human embryo. In responding to this political opportunity, and to the extent that formal ethical discussion may facilitate the consequent negotiations around conflicting cultural values, bioethics has emerged as a form of governance closely linked to the evolution of regulatory policies. KEYWORDS: stem cells, bioethics, governance, human embryo, regulation.

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At the November 2001 session of the UN Legal Committee, the Vatican observer was the sole voice arguing that the proposed international convention against human reproductive cloning should be expanded to include therapeutic cloning, an important technique in human embryonic stem cell (HESC) science. But in a UN debate on the same issue three-and-a-half years later, in March 2005, eighty-four countries, led by the United States, supported the Vatican position, voting for a declaration that called on countries to ban all forms of human cloning. Ranged against them were a group of thirty-four countries, led by the United Kingdom (UK) and Belgium, with varying degrees of commitment to HESC science. However, the declaration is not legally binding, and the maneuvering for control of the international agenda on the governance of stem cell science continues. Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) has witnessed a similarly intense debate and consequent stalemate over whether HESC science should be funded within the most recent round of research funding, known as Framework Programme 6 (FP6). Finally, the well-publicized divisions on the issue between Bush and Kerry in the 2004 US presidential election, swiftly followed by the Californian decision to invest $3 billion dollars in the contribution of HESC science to regenerative medicine as a result of the vote in favor of Proposition 71, illustrate the stark polarities that may be generated at the national level as well.

Unusually for a single area of scientific governance, HESC science has produced politicization right across the international, regional, and national policy domains. Why is this, and what are the forces driving the mobile politics of the field? In addressing these questions, I begin the article by establishing the relationship between science and economics. How is the relationship between the ambitions of science, the promise of HESCs, and the economics of their development constructed? For medical science to move from the bench to the clinic, it has to secure the support of both venture capitalists and companies prepared to commit resources on the basis of faith in a future, and perhaps distant, therapeutic product. Should such faith be lacking, governments have the option of providing bridging investment in anticipation of the health consumer demand that may be stimulated by the potential stem cell technologies, and the economic benefits that could accrue to those in control of the technological supply. Through their choices on the support they give, or do not give, to HESC science in terms of investment and financial regulation, states have the ability to create a global framework of incentives and penalties to which both scientists and transnational companies may respond.

But consumer support for the research and development of new health technologies depends on considerably more than the anticipated health gain provided by such technologies. Markets are influenced by national and regional cultures that may not be sympathetic to technologies that offend certain cultural values, particularly those associated with the iconic status of the human embryo. …

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