Monday, November 26, 2012

Charis Thompson: "Three Times a Woman: A Gendered Economy of Stem Cell Innovation"

Charis Thompson
In her recent Life (Un)Ltd presentation, “Three Times a Woman: A Gendered Economy of Stem Cell Innovation,” Charis Thompson discussed the state of stem cell research in a pro-curial economy—that is, an economy that emphasizes the cure potential of stem cell research rather than the debate around the embryos used. Thompson, Professor and Chair of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley, as well as the Associate Director of Berkeley’s Science, Technology, and Society Center, said that the anatomy of the state-based science economy has three parts, all connected to the question of how to sell the idea of voting for science that is ethically questionable and federally underfunded. The first part is pro-cures rhetoric to communicate that people are voting for cures, adding a moral imperative to the discourse. The second is procurement, the focus on which bypasses embryo politics. The third is biocuration, referring to chains of custody for, bookkeeping of, and compliance with stem cell research. Thompson pointed out that women are central to these issues: they are linked to them by virtue of occupying related positions as voters, care-ers, funders, advocates, and body labor and body parts donators, among other things.

In the first segment of her presentation, Thompson asked what happens when public funding of science research moves from the federal level to the state level. She said that “basic science” is good for the economy, that its results trickle down beneficially. This kind of research, when federally funded, is “firewalled” by the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy, which are staffed by experts and use extensive peer review and analysis to review grant requests.  When science is state-funded, there is a change to the social contract, Thompson said, in that direct democracy allows the public to vote directly for funding research. In 2004, California’s Proposition 71 made stem cell research a constitutional right. Section 4 of Article XXXV was added to the California Constitution to support stem cell research, yet the terms “women,” “embryo,” and “egg” do not appear in the legislation. This is perhaps ironic since women in California voted for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election—essentially, they voted pro-cures. Thompson said that women voted for and paid for (via their taxes) the research, but it is unclear whether or how they will benefit from it.

Next, Thompson discussed egg donor protection. She said that embryo politics became operationalized around the concept of what an “acceptable donation” is. California has become an embryo “tourist destination” because of the low restrictions on embryos in the state. Donations are often sought from college students, who are eugenically desirable and need the money that comes from donating. Thompson said that egg donor protection has become the women’s issue since Prop 71 passed, though this fact is sometimes mocked as paternalistic or even maternalistic. Lastly, Thompson raised some common questions about donors, including whether they should be paid, whether they should receive financial or health incentives, and whether they are being paid for bodily labors. She said that some of the usual forms of payment to donors are medical care benefits, the satisfaction of being part of the scientific process, and, through their participation, being on the fast track to experiencing the fruits of the research they assisted.

In talking about biocuration, Thompson used a certain company, which went unnamed, as an example. To further its stem cell research, the company was getting women to donate their eggs, but ran into financial trouble. Its venture capitalist support wasn’t in favor of scientific research, which it saw as too long-term for its investment. The company needed grants approved to continue its research, so in the meantime it turned to producing biological tools and cosmetics—a heavily gendered product, as Thompson pointed out. The marketing rhetoric for the cosmetics focused on “regenerative” words, linking its aims back to the company’s stem cell research. Overall, the company’s example calls into question the issues of research funding and transparency.

Lastly, Thompson discussed what should be done about these issues. She mentioned “The Belmont Report,” an ethics-in-research document from the late 1970s whose three principles are respect for persons, beneficence, and justice in the selection of research subjects; Thompson added that there might be disproportionate use of some women enrolled in stem cell research. Thompson also said a rhetorical change is needed. Gendered, raced, and classed benefits and demands of the innovative economy should be sought out and named. The Prop 71 text should use “women,” “egg,” and “embryo” in its language. And the promissory genre of Prop 71 should be made clear, with the likely and possible uncertainties and unintended consequences spelled out. (For example, “We might make cosmetics while we raise another round of venture capital,” and, “Not every taxpayer will have full access to the fruits of this research.”) People should know, Thompson said, what they’re contributing to in an innovation economy.

Thompson ended with a few questions for thought: Would the public vote for science in conditions of great hope, uncertainty, inequality, and possible trivialization? If not, should Prop 71 not have been funded? Should the nation remain the primary spender of tax money on research? And how do we revisit the social contract where science is involved?

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