Embryonic stem-cell research advocates are currently faced with a tough decision. They can continue to push pending legislation that would open up more embryonic stem-cell research, but which also faces a likely veto from President Bush; or they can face up to the current political climate in Washington, and back a different bill, which would fund alternative types of stem-cell research.
The House has passed a bill (HR810) that would allow funding for embryonic stem-cell research using extra embryos, produced by in vitro fertilization clinics, that would otherwise be discarded. A companion bill is pending in the Senate, although there is some question as to whether Majority Leader Bill Frist and the rest of the Republican leadership will allow it to come to the floor for a vote. If it does pass, the president has promised to veto the bill, which flies in the face of his Aug. 9, 2001, executive order allowing federal funding only for research on stem cells derived from embryos destroyed before that date.
Standard embryonic stem-cell research results in the destruction of an embryo, a scenario that is unacceptable to many abortion foes and Christian conservatives. As an attempt to pursue stem-cell research given that opposition, the President’s Council on Bioethics has approved four technologies designed to get “embryo-style” cells (meaning they can replenish themselves indefinitely and become almost any cell in the human body) without killing an embryo.
The alternative technologies run the gamut from harvesting cells from embryos without harming them to inducing adult cells to revert to an embryonic state. When embryos leftover from IVF procedures could be used rather than pursuing these somewhat convoluted alternatives, the effort does seem misplaced. But since a Bush veto will send those embryos to the trash can anyway, pursuing the alternatives is better than nothing.
A bill drafted by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland) would devote $15 million to exploring the four alternatives. In the scheme of things it’s not much, considering that in 2004 the government spent $24.3 million on embryonic stem-cell research and $203.3 million on adult stem-cell research. If it passes, the funding likely won’t take away from potential future funding of “real” embryonic stem-cell research.
The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which advocates for funding embryonic stem-cell research, called the alternative proposals “anti-stem-cell-research” decoys. It’s true that most of those people supporting the alternatives want to avoid destroying embryos for ethical or moral reasons. But at least the people behind the alternatives are seeking common ground, unlike those on either side of the debate who are locked in dogmatic stances.
Bartlett may be politically motivated, but his argument makes sense. “If HR810 is the only option,” Bartlett said, “the country will lose at least two to four years of time and investment by the federal government in pluripotent stem-cell research.” As much as embryonic stem-cell supporters might hate to agree with him, they should.
Some people who support exploring the alternatives also support embryonic stem-cell research. Robert Lanza, vice president at Advanced Cell Technology, a leading embryonic stem-cell and cloning company, testified at a Senate hearing in support of one of the methods (“We’ll take any additional money you’ll throw our way,” he said). Other embryonic stem-cell researchers have also voiced support, with the caveat that they’d rather pursue the real thing.
If Bartlett’s bill passes and the president elected in 2008 allows more embryonic stem-cell funding, great. Maybe federally funded researchers will have learned a thing or two about new ways to derive embryonic stem cells. If the new president maintains Bush’s stance, then at least scientists will have a head start on developing federally acceptable technologies.
Those disposed against the president might find some joy in seeing him use his first veto to block funding of research that has the potential to help millions of people with debilitating diseases and injuries. There are easy political points to be scored by painting Bush as valuing a bundle of cells more than children and adults who are already struggling to walk this earth.
But as politically satisfying as that scenario might be, it won’t get cures to patients any faster. The bill to expand the present funding will die, and researchers will lose valuable time searching for “ethical” alternatives that will be key should the next president also oppose research that destroys embryos.
We’d prefer that more federal funds went toward embryonic stem-cell research, and we feel that the president’s restrictions on that research are harming science and patients. We also realize that these alternative methods, while potentially interesting, are largely designed to provide political cover to the president. Still, if stem-cell proponents succeed in vilifying these alternatives, they will have to face up to the fact that it wouldn’t just be the president who is delaying potential breakthroughs.