Bush Backs Strictly Limited Stem Cell Research

Stem Cell Research

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
4 min read

Aug. 10, 2001 (Washington) -- After months of consideration, President Bush has announced that he will allow U.S. funding for studies on embryonic stem cells, but only on more than 60 cell populations that he said had already been removed from embryos in privately funded research.

The decision, Bush says, ensures that no taxpayer money will go to research on cells not yet taken from embryos, since that requires the destruction of the embryo and "its potential for life". At the same time, he said, his compromise permits research on a field that scientists say holds huge promise for breakthrough treatments and even disease cures.

"Embryonic stem cell research offers both great promise and great peril, so I have decided that we must proceed with great care," Bush said. The President unveiled his decision in a prime-time evening TV address from his Texas ranch.

Embryonic stem cells are unspecialized, self-renewing cells. Scientists believe that they can multiply and manipulate the cells so that they become brain, heart, pancreas, or many other types of cells.

Bush said that his decision "allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research, without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos." The embryos in question are about five days old, and contain a total of about 50 to 100 cells. Their total size is less than the head of a pin.

According to Bush, the stem cell funding issue "lies at a difficult moral intersection, juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases, with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages."

How much research the Bush plan would actually allow is not yet certain. Although he spoke of more than 60 existing cell lines, or cell colonies developed from that many embryos, there are discrepancies on the actual number. For example, the NIH said in a June report that there were about 30 lines, and the National Health Council, an umbrella group of patient organizations and other health groups, said that there were only about a dozen.

Regardless of the number, many patient groups and scientists claim that limiting research to the existing cell lines isn't good enough. Council spokesman Chris Paladino tells WebMD, "Scientists and researchers are telling us that they need hundreds of cell lines."

According to NIH's June report, few studies have compared stem cell lines, each of which carries a unique genetic profile. "It may be that one source proves better for certain applications, and a different cell source proves better for others," the NIH said.

Myrl Weinberg, president of the National Health Council, said she was glad that Bush didn't ban all funding for the research, but was "very sorry that [he] did not recognize the need for developing additional stem cell lines, and that some life saving treatments may never be discovered."

Under the Bush decision, Weinberg said, "only privately funded scientists will have access to new cell lines," which "places a significant barrier in the path of knowledge."

On the other hand, Richard Doerflinger, an official with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that Bush had crossed a "moral line" by permitting research on cells that required the destruction of a human embryo. He said that the limits proposed by Bush could be unworkable, setting the stage for future destruction.

A range of "pro-life" religious groups have intensely pressured the Administration not to allow any government support of the research, citing a pledge Bush made in May to ban government funding for research that destroys "living" embryos. Last month, after Bush met with the Pope in Italy, the Vatican weighed in strongly against any embryonic research.

But those who support stem cell research have argued that having the U.S. government's enthusiastic lead in funding is crucial to a robust and publicly accountable exploration of possible cures for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes, and a host of other diseases.

A number of prominent Republican lawmakers who oppose abortion had weighed in to support the embryonic studies, including Sen. Bill Frist, MD, (R, Tenn.). Frist has offered a limited funding proposal similar to what Bush announced.

In the wake of Bush's decision, science and patient groups say that they are going to actively lobby Congress to pass legislation that would permit stem cell research from all the excess embryos in the nation's in vitro fertility clinics.

This more generous federal support would be in line with what the Clinton Administration had proposed, but could face a Bush veto if it clears Congress.

There are an estimated 100,000 frozen in vitro embryos -- embryos that were created as part of the in vitro fertilization process but never used. Under current law, these leftover embryos can legally be discarded.

Bush also announced last night that Leon Kass, a bioethicist at the University of Chicago, would chair a new presidential stem cell council to monitor the research and help develop guidelines on studies.

Although scientists say that cloned human embryos can be sources of stem cells, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban all human cloning last month, and Bush reiterated his opposition to these activities.