Abortion Debate Clouds Future of Stem Cell Research
Stem Cell Dilemmas
Jan. 26, 2000 (Washington) -- Does stem cell research result in
the destruction of life, or is it the harbinger of a lifesaving scientific
tool? The argument threatens to undermine stem cell studies just at the moment
when the promising technology is making rapid gains. Even though the Clinton
administration allowed stem cell experiments to proceed under tight guidelines,
it's not clear yet how George W. Bush will proceed.
The primitive cells, a kind of biologic putty, are obtained
from bone marrow or an embryo and theoretically can be molded into other types
of cells, which in turn can be used in treatments for many devastating
conditions from heart disease to paralysis. The question for scientists now is,
how do they crank the cells up? Diabetes is a prime target, because it's
thought that stem cells could be readily converted to cells that produce
insulin. Similarly, Parkinson's patients might benefit from stem cells turned
into manufacturers of the brain chemical dopamine, which is lacking in these
"We have been told by Bush transition team officials that
precipitous action on the stem cell research was unlikely, and so far ... there
has been none. ... So we're monitoring, almost on an hour to hour basis,"
Mary Hendrix, PhD president of the Federation of American Societies for
Experimental Biology tells WebMD. The group of 60,000 scientists is pushing
hard to hold the line on stem cell studies.
Hendrix says that if any policy review occurs, she hopes to
convince the president that stem cell experiments hold great promise and can
proceed in an ethical manner.
The president campaigned in support of existing federal policy
that prohibits research involving the destruction of an embryo. "You're
familiar with the president's position on the issue. If there are any other
regulations or any other changes, you'll be notified," Ari Fleischer, White
House press secretary, tells WebMD.
An unknown in the equation is how newly confirmed Health and
Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson will react. He will supervise the
federal research establishment, and even though he opposes abortion, as
Wisconsin's governor he praised a University of Wisconsin scientist for his
work on stem cells. In 1999, Thompson singled out James Thomson, PhD, for
"groundbreaking developments in stem cell research."
However, since the new president has already rolled back
funding for international family planning programs that counsel or offer
abortion services, the question now is will Bush take a hard look at stem
cells? Antiabortion groups hope the answer is yes. They oppose stem cell
technology as unethical and illegal. William Saunders, JD, of the conservative
Family Research Council, says the approach amounts to "disposable human
"Even though it seems insignificant, it's just the most
defenseless human being ... but it's still a human being. To kill one human
being to help another ... [is] just not something we want to do. We don't want
to go down that road," Saunders tells WebMD.