Bush’s stem cell mistake

BY JACOB APPEL

Fifteen months have elapsed since President Bush called a halt to federal funding for research on new lines of pluripotent stem cells. That decision, which placed him squarely at odds with the majority of Americans and many of the most respected leaders in his own party, rested upon a highly misguided approach to the ethical questions involved. Subsequent developments in the availability of pre-existing stem cell lines have revealed that his decision rested upon several highly flawed factual assumptions as well.

At the time of the President’s decision, an ABCNEWS/Beliefnet poll revealed that Americans supported federal funding for stem cell research by a margin of more than two-to-one. Supporters included not only traditional liberal constituencies, but also a majority of Roman Catholics and Evangelical white Protestants. Some of the nation’s staunchest opponents of abortion are among the strongest supporters of such research, including Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Gordon Smith of Oregon, former Senator Connie Mack of Florida, former President Gerald Ford and former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

These prominent conservatives have joined the growing chorus of leading scientists who believe that research on pluripotent stem cells may hold the clues to curing such scourges as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and leukemia, and may help victims of spinal cord injuries to walk again. They also understand that these breakthroughs — if the appropriate research is properly funded — may be only a few years away. But most importantly, they recognize that stem cell research has nothing at all to do with the destruction of human life: Small cell clusters produced in petri dishes are not human being and they are not even potential human beings. Unless they are implanted in the wombs of women — and surely no one suggests conscripting women in which to implant them — they will remain small cell clusters indefinitely.

The President justified his halt to federal funding on the grounds that many pluripotent stem cell lines already existed and that these would be available to researchers. Yet of the 64 lines cited by the Bush Administration in August, 2001, fewer than ten are now available to the scientific community. Roger Pederson, a leading California-based investigator who has since taken his laboratory to England, points out that these lines were cultivated with mouse cells and are all but ineligible for transplantation to humans. In addition, even if these lines were all made widely available, even if all the challenges of keeping the fragile cells alive were surmounted and all the patent battles resolved in favor of expanded access, most researchers currently believe these 64 lines will not come close to satisfying the needs of medical science. In short, the President made his decision upon one set of facts. Since it now appears those facts are inaccurate, it would seem prudent to reexamine his decision.

Unfortunately, what should be a rather straightforward scientific matter has been clouded by a small group of vocal extremists. While we should certainly allow these individuals the right to wallow in their superstition and ignorance —much as in a free country we permit people to advocate a geocentric model of the universe and a flat earth — we should not let them impose either their scientific illiteracy or their moral bankruptcy upon the rest of us. Nor should we allow our president to succumb to their political pressure. This is especially the case when the cost in human lives and human suffering will be as painful as it is likely to be.

It is highly likely that the incoming Congress will vote on a measure to renew federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. You can substantially increase the chance of its passage by taking a moment to write to your senators and your member of Congress to urge them to take a passionate and public stand in favor of this life-saving research. The life you save may be your own or that of someone you love.

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