Sept. 14, 2000 (Washington) -- Although federal guidelines for government funding of the cutting-edge field of stem-cell research are now in force, a moral battle continues to rage over the issue. And the showdown may come to a vote in the U.S. Senate in the weeks ahead.
On Thursday, the controversy even drew out the paparazzi, as actors Mary Tyler Moore and Michael J. Fox testified before Congress to urge federal funding for this type of research.
Starting with human embryos the size of a pencil dot on a piece of paper, scientists have extracted primitive stem cells. They have then been able to cultivate and multiply these building-block cells as they develop into more specialized cells.
If researchers can learn to steer the cells' development into blood, nerve, heart, muscle, and other cell types, they could potentially use them to replace damaged or dead cells in humans. That holds immense promise in the battle against cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease, among other conditions.
But some medical experts, along with Catholic activists and anti-abortion lawmakers, note that getting the stem cells requires destroying the embryos in which they grow. That, they say, trades away life in the name of science.
"Does good ever derive from evil means?" Russell Saltzman, a Kansas City pastor, asked Thursday. "Is the human embryo human life, or is it a mere bit of research material? If it is mere research material, why should any human life at any stage of development -- yours or mine -- carry any special privilege?"
Those who object to embryo stem cell research say scientists have another research option that is without moral controversy: using stem cells from dead people. But many scientists say it's important not to close off the possible roads to cures that the embryo cells may offer.
Moore, who has had diabetes for over 30 years and represents the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, said real-life people suffering from diseases should get priority over embryos. "Our obligation is to those of us who are here," she says, adding that, scientifically, the tiny embryos in question, "bear as much resemblance to a human being as a goldfish."
Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's, urged lawmakers to avoid further delays and allow stem-cell research to commence. "Sadly, we've already lost two years progress towards a cure," he said, referring to the lengthy Washington debate over stem cells.
The National Institutes of Health's stem-cell research guidelines, released last month, do not allow federal funding for activities involved in removing the cells from embryos. They do allow money for research on cells that have already been obtained, and they require that the cells come only from leftover embryos in fertility clinics. There are an estimated 100,000 such embryos already in these clinics.
The NIH's position is similar to that previously taken by President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission.
But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is pushing legislation that would make the new guidelines more flexible by allowing government funding for removing stem cells from embryos. He calls it a "counteroffensive" against conservative House lawmakers who are threatening to block the NIH from funding any research related to embryo stem cells. "You might be knocked out if you don't keep swinging," Specter tells WebMD.
Specter says Senate majority leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has promised him a vote on his bill before Congress adjourns in early October.