Bush Caught in the Middle on Stem Cells

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July 5, 2001 (Washington) -- Any day now, President George W. Bush is expected to announce a final decision on whether federal monies can be used for embryonic stem cell research.

He's being pressed hard from both sides of this contentious question.

The research is heralded by many biomedical scientists, disease research groups, and a growing list of lawmakers as incredibly promising in terms of cures for a range of diseases that have no cure, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and cancer.

So why all the debate? Embryonic stem cell studies require the destruction of human embryos, which the Catholic Church, antiabortion organizations, and some Republican lawmakers strongly condemn as immoral.

To this point, some Bush advisers believe that blocking federal funding is crucial to pleasing Catholic voters and conservatives. Others in the Bush Administration, such as health secretary Tommy Thompson, say the research is too important to oppose.

Since stem cells are "blank," immature cells that have the ability to divide infinitely and develop into any cell type -- blood, brain, skin, muscle, and so on -- early animal research beckons that they may be a replacement solution to damaged and malfunctioning organs and tissue.

Although federal law prohibits the use of federal funds for human embryo research, the Clinton Administration cleared the way for funding by deciding early in 1999 that cells from an embryo weren't the same as an embryo itself.

But President Bush has put that controversial legal opinion on hold as he completes a review of the situation. In the meantime, embryonic stem cell research proposals submitted to the National Institutes of Health earlier this year, wait for the outcome.

Proponents of funding for research on the embryonic stem cells note that the cells are taken from early-stage "excess" frozen embryos from fertility clinics, which already may be legally destroyed.

On the other hand, those who oppose the funding equate the research as requiring the killing of human life. They propose that NIH instead only fund research on stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood, placentas, and adult tissues.

In a July 2 statement, leading Republicans House Majority Leader Dick Armey (Texas), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Texas), and House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. (Okla.), said, "It is not pro-life to rely on an industry of death, even if the intention is to find cures for diseases."

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The conservative Family Research Council praised these Republicans as "leaders who actually lead". In a statement, the group said, "[They] are to be commended for their forthright defense of human life -- even at, and especially at, its earliest stages."

But embryonic stem cell research now appears to have gained majority support from both House and Senate Democrats and Republicans.

Last month, Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) and 37 other House Republicans informed Bush that they supported federal funding. Meanwhile, the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate GOP group with 60 congressional members, also has announced its support for funding.

Rep. Amo Houghton (N.Y.), founder of the moderate group, said, "This research offers hope to millions of families facing the loss of a loved one from an incurable disease or injury."

In the Senate, "antiabortion" Republicans Orrin Hatch (Utah), Strom Thurmond (S.C.), and Gordon Smith (Ore.) also back the research.

In a letter to Bush last month, Hatch said, "Proceeding with this research is in the best interests of the American public and is consistent with our shared pro-life, pro-family values."

Hatch also noted that most biomedical researchers do not believe that adult stem cell research is "sufficient or even scientifically preferable" to embryonic stem cell studies.

Under guidelines that the NIH developed during the Clinton Administration, embryos could not be created for the purpose of supplying stem cells for research. The guidelines also prohibit federal funding for the actual extraction of the cells from the embryos.

Both sides of the stem cell debate say there is little room for compromise.

Kevin Wilson, director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology, tells WebMD, "The NIH guidelines themselves are a good compromise. There is no need to compromise any further." The society strongly backs funding for the research.

But David Prentice, PhD, a professor of life sciences at Indiana State University, tells WebMD, "Ideally, you wouldn't be killing any embryos. Our compromise position -- private funds OK but no federal funds -- is probably where the line needs to be drawn." Prentice is a founding member of a coalition of health experts opposed to the funding.

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