After years of rancorous debate, Tuesday's vote by the U.S. Senate on a package of stem-cell research bills suggests that responsible bipartisan action actually may be possible.
Nineteen Republican senators broke with the anti-abortion base of their party and with President Bush, by voting to lift the restrictions imposed five years ago by the president on federal funding for stem-cell research.
On the other side of the aisle, pro-choice Democrats voted to support a companion bill banning the intentional creation and abortion of fetuses in order to use their tissues for experimental purposes. Although no one, as far as anyone knows, has proposed doing this at this time, the vote affirms that liberals and conservatives can agree that some forms of biomedical research are ethically unacceptable and should be prohibited.
Also encouraging was what was left out of the package, notably, any move to authorize federal funding for research cloning, a procedure fraught with risks. At one time, cloning was thought to be necessary for stem-cell therapy to work, but many scientists increasingly believe that this is not the case.
Tuesday's vote won't, however, end the controversy over stem cells. The president has vowed to veto the bill liberalizing federal support for research using spare embryos. The legislation will be reintroduced next year and almost certainly become a hot-button wedge issue in the 2008 elections.
Further, stem-cell research raises a host of questions not addressed in this round of bills, and that urgently call for serious attention. These include questions about informed consent by embryo donors, financial conflicts of interest between researchers and fertility clinic operators, patenting and intellectual property rules, affordability of future stem cell treatments, and more.
Last year, a committee of scientists and others working under the National Academies of Science issued guidelines intended to address some of these concerns. But these have no legally binding power, and leave ultimate authority for deciding controversial questions with local committees of researchers. Although the great majority of scientists are ethically responsible, they are not immune to the lure of fame and fortune, as the sorry experience of South Korean stem-cell scientist Hwang Woo Suk and his colleagues demonstrates.
In the United States, stem-cell research is being conducted in a federal regulatory vacuum. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in most of Europe, Canada and Australia, where comprehensive national systems of oversight have been established. In the United Kingdom, a Stem Cell Steering Committee (SCSC) develops national rules of conduct for stem-cell research and oversees the operations of a nationally sponsored stem-cell bank. The SCSC includes scientists, health experts, ethicists, theologians and lay members. Any institution wishing to conduct stem-cell research, or to deposit or have access to cell lines held by the stem-cell bank, must first obtain a license obligating it to abide by nationally uniform rules.
Why has nothing like this been established in the United States? A key reason is that the major interest groups involved have resisted regulatory oversight. Religious conservatives fear that creation of regulatory structures could ease the way toward approval of practices they believe should be banned. Scientists, commercial biotech firms and fertility clinic operators have been reluctant to accept limits on what they see as their inherent right to conduct research and make profits.
But surveys show a majority of Americans support strong federal oversight of stem-cell research and other new human genetic technologies. These are powerful technologies that could herald dramatic medical advances. Without effective regulation, however, they could also lead to greater health inequities, harms to women who provide eggs for research, and misguided efforts to produce cloned or genetically modified children. It is imperative that our political leaders begin formulating bipartisan proposals for regulatory structures that will allow us to reap the benefits and avoid the risks that these technologies hold. Tuesday's vote in the U.S. Senate is a small, but promising, step in this direction.
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