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Senator Frist's stem cell shift

Genetic Crossroads
August 4th, 2005

How will Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's recent break with President Bush's restrictive stem cell policy change the politics of embryonic stem cell research?

In remarks delivered July 29 on the Senate floor, Frist announced that he will support a bill already passed by the House that would allow federal funding for research using stem cells derived from embryos that were "created for the purpose of fertility treatments" and "would otherwise be discarded and destroyed." Bush has vowed to veto the House bill; it is unclear whether supporters in either chamber have enough votes to override him.

Frist said he remains opposed to the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes, whether from gametes or by means of research cloning. He also called for a national oversight mechanism, a position similar to that of the National Academies committee that issued recommendations on embryonic stem cell research in April.

Frist's move was welcomed by many, but harshly criticized both by the religious right, which viewed it as a betrayal, and by some supporters of stem cell research. A New York Times editorial called it "a step forward, but a pathetically small one." Robert Klein, chair of the California stem cell institute, held a conference call with reporters in which he issued hyperbolic warnings about the effects of any "restrictions" on stem cell work. According to the Sacramento Bee, Klein said he "feared that Frist would allow the Senate to approve restrictions that would `handicap or destroy' stem-cell studies showing promise in treating and curing disease." This, Klein said, "would be a tragedy of the highest magnitude."

As these quotes suggest, the polarization surrounding stem cell research could deepen whether or not the stem cell bill is passed, and whether or not it is vetoed by Bush. If this happens, many liberals, progressives and Democrats could continue to resist meaningful oversight of stem cell research, and the significant political and ethical issues it raises that are unrelated to the status of human embryos could remain largely unaddressed.

It is also possible to envision a more positive scenario developing. Growing bipartisan support for expanded federal funding could isolate the religious right and the Bush administration, and depolarize the politics of stem cell research. This could set the stage for urgently needed agreements for effective national oversight of stem cell research, which would put the U.S. in line with regulatory policies in place in countries such as the UK, Canada, Singapore, and Sweden.


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