Biotech’s Non-profit Future

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on June 1, 2003

Reprinted with permission from the Council for Biotechnology Policy Update
http://www.biotechpolicy.com

COUNCIL COMMENTARY

A weekly commentary by the Council director on pressing biotech issues and concerns.

The markets have been particularly unkind to biotech stocks. The business pages retell stories of promising companies finding it tough to raise capital. And in an irony that is either sad or wonderful, PPL Therapeutics, which blazed the biotech trail by cloning Dolly the sheep, may be closing because it cannot find a buyer willing to pay the $700,000 it is asking for her.

Yet the general assumption is that the gold rush is still on in the biotech industry. Why else has B.I.O. (the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which claims to represent over 1,000 member firms worldwide) been so relentlessly determined to invest millions of dollars in its pro-cloning campaign on the Hill when it continues to suffer substantial losses in goodwill and public opinion?

I ask the question in truth. It puzzles me, and it puzzled me when I called the Washington, D.C.-based B.I.O. office last year and got into a debate with its chief lobbyist, Michael Werner, who recently (and ironically) was retitled vice president for bioethics. Biotech surely has a bigger interest in long-term stable markets and a positive public profile than it does in whatever profits may or may not lie in the cloned-embryo industry, I argued. He was not convinced. I am. Increasingly so, in fact, and it is that conviction which is a source of encouragement in an otherwise bleak landscape. It harks back to Adam Smith, founder of economics who, like Dolly (and me), hailed from Scotland. The market can have a corrective effect on our private, selfish, short-sighted initiatives. And it may yet bring sanity into the unfolding development of biotechnology.

Truthfully, I am perplexed that B.I.O. has backed itself into such an unpopular corner on Capitol Hill. Most of its members make their money on aspirin, not stem-cells. Yet because of its staunch defense of embryo farms and uncontrolled stem-cell experimentation, the biotech industry is now known both on the Hill and in millions of homes around the nation as a pariah. It has alienated the conservative, pro-family community by taking them head-on in its aggressive pro-cloning agenda. Likewise, it has disillusioned countless others because of its belligerent tone and its deceptive techniques, such as minting new terms for cloning as fast as its focus groups can test them. I remember watching them proudly roll Christopher Reeve out in front of the Senate with his “duty of government is to do the greatest good for the greatest number” mantra. I remember wondering if they really think they can fool enough of the people enough of the time to make money out of confused celebrities and painfully slick public relations tricks.

Yet the issue is much wider for the biotech industry, and in this broader realm pro-life conservatives are the least of its troubles. For B.I.O. comes to the cloning debate fresh from a bruising defeat at the hands of environmentalists who in Europe have declared genetically modified (GM) foods “Frankenfoods” and driven them from the store shelves and restaurant menus across the entire continent. The GM issue is also beginning to gain traction in the United States, and there is a special reason why B.I.O. should be worried here. Essentially, the cloning debate has brought together activists from both ends of the political spectrum for the first time, in a manner that has surprised everyone involved. Pro-choice luminary Judy Norsigian, editor of the feminist handbook Our Bodies, Ourselves, testified in favor of a comprehensive cloning ban side-by-side with Richard Doerflinger of the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Lori Andrews, a leading biotech legal writer and litigator and a major figure in pro-choice feminist circles, joined me in an op-ed to celebrate that occasion (Chicago Tribune, August 8, 2001).

So it is not simply that B.I.O. has succeeded in causing deep-seated (and growing) disaffection and suspicion on both the “left” and the “right” of the spectrum but that these two previously warring parties have begun to make common cause. One inevitable effect will be the spread (rightly or wrongly) of the GM/Frankenfood agenda among American conservatives as a result of rising distrust in biotech companies.

If I were a biotech executive, I would get a headache knowing the industry had succeeded in alienating the two most powerful centers of political and cultural energy in the Western world, and recognizing that the outcome of this debate has serious implications for the non-West, as is evident in the story of maize in Zimbabwe or of GM foods in Asia. This is the way to a non-profit future. Yet it is all so unnecessary.

Biotech holds enormous promise for conducting positive, ethical research and development. Yet even if ethics does not weigh enough with its leaders, the market will weigh it for them. Above all, the industry needs stability in its markets so long-term product development can be successful. It needs a positive image that is Frankenstein-free. And it needs to start mending fences to the left and to the right. B.I.O. needs to change its tune and some of its people, and it needs to start pulling back from the systematic destruction of its industry’s reputation. It is hard to believe that anyone who knows the names of Enron and Arthur Andersen can believe ethics is somehow the enemy of profit.


Nigel M. de S. Cameron founded the journal Ethics and Medicine in 1983 and serves as director of the Council for Biotechnology Policy affiliated with the Wilberforce Forum (www.biotechpolicy.org). He served as bioethics advisor on the U.S. delegation to the United Nations ad hoc committee discussions of an international treaty on human cloning in February of this year. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily express the position of the United States government.

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