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.
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
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
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."
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?
A debate about stem cell research regulation: CGS Executive Director
Hayes and Michael
Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute
and listen …
Jesse Reynolds on NPR's Marketplace
Richard Hayes on NPR's Marketplace (July 17)
Jesse Reynolds on KPFA
Evening News (July 18 at 43 min 32 sec)
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")
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.
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.
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.
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.