The state of Georgia may be about to get a lot more populous.
Recently, it was announced that Republican voters will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot question in the July 31 primary to declare that a “pre-born” child — consisting of as few as one cell — should be entitled to all the legal rights of a human being.
While the Personhood USA movement works to galvanize legislators in about 30 states, the crux of the public debate is over abortion rights, but a related issue deserves a hearing: the effects on human embryonic stem cell research.
Bruce Olwin, a stem cell researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, foresees two consequences of legislation that could criminalize legitimate research: Scientists might flee to states that view their work more favorably — or leave the country altogether.
Alienating an entire contingent of researchers would have dire consequences on America’s ability to compete globally in the field. “Because of the overarching intrusion of religion and politics on science,” Olwin said, “I think it’s going to drive the United States into a Third World science country. We will not be anywhere near the leaders.”
Bernard Siegel, the founder and director of the Genetics Policy Institute, agrees that the Personhood movement represents a potentially major setback.
“Microscopic cells in a lab dish, that by a couple’s decision will never be implanted in a womb, should not be defined as ‘people,’” Siegel said. “Any state aspiring to become a center for biomedical research and biotechnology should not touch a personhood bill with a 10-foot pole.”
Another ripple effect of the Personhood legislation would be an assault on an infertile couple’s ability to have a child, according to Dr. Jonathan Van Berklom, an expert on IVF at the University of Colorado Boulder. The very act of creating embryos in a lab would be laced with criminal liability.
“If an embryo dies in a lab accident or the culture medium is not quite right, and an embryo doesn’t develop, these aspects of IVF — where things do and can go wrong — would become a criminal act,” Van Berklom said. “So some IVF practitioners would stop practicing. People would say, ‘I’m just going to go back to doing OB-GYN’ so they won’t be picketed.”
If Keith Mason, the leader of Personhood USA, has his way, doctors and researchers will do exactly that: retreat. He calls embryonic stem cell research “largely unsuccessful” and “horrendous.”
Perhaps he should talk to Sue Freeman, whose macular degeneration improved enough to allow her to go grocery shopping alone after her participation in a groundbreaking clinical trial at UCLA last year using human embryonic stem cells.
At such an exciting time for the field, the Personhood movement’s robust expansion is sobering.
“Any state passing a personhood measure would surely send the wrong message to the world,” Siegel warned. “Do we prefer the Dark Ages or the promise of 21st century biomedical research?”
The clock is ticking. We’re about to find out.
Kira Peikoff is the author of “Living Proof,” a novel that explores a near-future America when embryonic stem cell research has been outlawed. She lives in New York.
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