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After the vote and the veto: Making sense of stem cell politics

Genetic Crossroads
August 4th, 2006

George Bush's much-discussed veto of the Senate stem cell bill ensures hot-button status for stem cell research in this fall's elections, and likely into the 2008 races. Reaction to the President's veto has been harsh: A public opinion poll indicated that only 36% of Americans approved of it; an overwhelming majority of newspaper editorial pages condemned it; stem cell research proponents attacked it.

Unfortunately, some of the post-veto criticism has repeated irresponsible claims that have too often been made about embryonic stem cell research, exaggerating the likelihood, scope, and timeliness of cures. Some commentators have used the vote and veto to argue for developing cloning techniques to derive stem cells—a much more problematic approach than using embryos created for fertility purposes.

With few exceptions, post-veto observers have focused on embryo politics and the abortion divide, and on the potential of stem cell research as a wedge issue for the Democrats. There has been little analysis of other important issues raised by stem cell research, and little mention of the need for effective and enforceable federal regulation to replace the patchwork of state and voluntary guidelines that currently provide the only rules of the stem cell research road.

If the stem cell debate continues in its super-polarized register, it will remain difficult to distinguish between hopeful prediction and promotional hype, and difficult to get a hearing for considerations of health equity, protection of research subjects, and the need for responsible governance.

One prominent and welcome sign that the debate could take a more nuanced turn is this week's cover story in Time magazine, which comments, "Somewhere between the flat-earthers who would gladly stop progress and the swashbucklers who disdain limits are people who approve of stem-cell research in general but get uneasy as we approach the ethical frontiers."

bullet The Senate stem cell package: Understanding the three bills
Given the partisan polarization that has developed around stem cell research, how were liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress able to come to agreement on an issue that until now has been so divisive?

bullet A debate about stem cell research regulation: CGS Executive Director Richard Hayes and Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute

Watch and listen …

bullet Jesse Reynolds on NPR's Marketplace (July 17)

bullet Richard Hayes on NPR's Marketplace (July 17)

bullet Jesse Reynolds on KPFA Evening News (July 18 at 43 min 32 sec)

bullet Marcy Darnovsky on KPIX TV's Evening News (July 18)
(click on the "Search" tab inside the "Video library" box, and search for "impact of political debate on stem cell research")

The Senate stem cell package: Understanding the three bills

Given the partisan polarization that has developed around stem cell research, how were liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress able to come to agreement on an issue that until now has been so divisive?

The bill that would have undone President Bush's restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research was actually part of a package carefully assembled by Senate majority leader Bill Frist to provide political cover for his Republican colleagues. The three bills were a mixed bag, combining good policy, missed opportunities, and arcane bioethics.

The major bill, the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act," would have revised the current policy, set by President Bush on August 9, 2001, that limits federal funding to research on stem cells created prior to that date. It was passed a year ago by the House of Representatives, by a vote of 238 to 194, but there are not enough votes to override the veto in either the Senate or the House.

The second bill in the three-part package, the "Fetus Farming Prohibition Act," passed both houses last month and was signed into law by the President. It prohibits research using tissues from fetuses expressly conceived and aborted for that purpose. This bill was designed to give Republican senators who vote to support liberalization of federal stem cell funding an opportunity to vote for a bill that will resonate with their anti-abortion base, and thus provide some cover.

In spite of its lurid title and partisan political purpose, this bill is justifiable on the merits. Although there are no reports of scientists currently proposing such research, the bill sets a useful precedent, reminding us that there are ethical lines shared by the great majority of Americans, including those on both sides of the abortion debate, which should not be crossed.

The third bill, the "Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act," was motivated by similar considerations about giving political cover to Republicans who want to support stem cell research without risking the support of their anti-abortion base. It directs the Department of Health and Human Resources to investigate techniques for creating stem cells as potent as those derived from embryos without destroying human embryos. Some of the proposed techniques could turn out to be welcome developments. But one, which involves the use of cloning and genetic modification procedures to create non-viable embryos, is very troubling.

"Altered Nuclear Transfer" (ANT), calls for the cloning of genetically modified human embryos incapable of creating placental tissue. Because they do not possess the potential to become viable fetuses, some anti-abortion advocates consider them to be morally acceptable as research material. But this research would subsidize the development of techniques that could be used in efforts to produce genetically modified and cloned humans, practices which most people, including liberal, pro-choice scientists and political leaders, oppose. In addition, these procedures require quantities of women's eggs, raising concerns about putting women's health unnecessarily at risk, and creating a potentially exploitative market in eggs.

This bill passed the Senate but was buried in the House of Representatives by Democrats who wanted to deny anti-research Republicans the opportunity to claim that they support some stem cell research. Although it is fortunate that it did not become law, this maneuvering is typical of—and exacerbates—the excessive partisan framing of the debate over human biotechnologies.

So how do we evaluate the package of stem cell bills, taken as a whole? The fact that Republicans and Democrats, and those on both sides of the abortion debate, appear to have been able to reach as much agreement as they did is a hopeful sign. What is needed next is a bipartisan initiative towards a comprehensive system of federal oversight and control addressing the stem cell and other human biotechnologies.

In contrast to most of Europe, Canada, Australia and other countries, the United States has no comprehensive federal system of stem cell research oversight and control. Rather, committees established by private companies, university labs, and a few states are cobbling together a patchwork of regulations of varying effectiveness and little consistency.

In general, these regulations do little to prevent financial conflicts of interest among researchers and fertility clinic operators who supply embryos and women's eggs for research. Nor do they adequately address the thicket of issues involving patenting and intellectual property. And they rarely do much to ensure that stem cell research isn't used for socially unacceptable purposes, such as the creation of cloned or genetically "designed" human beings.

We need clear policies identifying those technologies we affirmatively support; those that pose both benefits and risks, and should be allowed but effectively regulated; and those, such as reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification, that pose such profound risks that they need to be prohibited. This is the basic policy approach that would allow us to realize the benefits of powerful new technologies and avoiding their risks.


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