July 29, 2005 -- In a surprise move Friday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he will back efforts to reverse President Bush's policy restricting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Frist (R-Tenn.) shocked conservatives and delighted research advocates when he rose on the Senate floor to say that he would support a controversial bill greatly expanding the number of embryonic stem cell lines eligible for government-funded studies.
The announcement signaled a stark break from Bush, who has threatened to veto the expansion bill. Frist had been a key White House ally in slowing down the legislation because of ethical concerns.
But Frist said that he had determined that embryonic stem cells represented a research avenue that could not be fulfilled by other less controversial forms of stem cells.
"I also strongly believe -- as do countless other scientists, clinicians, and doctors -- that embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide," he said.
Federal policy laid down by Bush in August 2001 limited federal funding to 77 stem cell lines that had already been derived from human embryos. But only 22 of those lines have proved viable for research, and scientists have complained that contamination has severely limited even those lines from ever being of use in developing treatments.
Bush has defended the restrictions saying they struck the proper balance between advancing science and protecting nascent human lives in the form of embryos.
But Friday, Frist unexpectedly joined with a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing to extend National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to cell lines derived from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. He said that Bush's limits will "slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases.
"Therefore, I believe the president's policy should be modified. We should expand federal funding (and thus NIH oversight) and current guidelines governing stem cell research, carefully and thoughtfully staying within ethical bounds," he said.
The announcement came on the Senate's last day of business before an August recess, meaning that lawmakers won't revisit the issue until at least September.
Ethical Concerns Remain
Frist said he would support a reversal of the policy but warned that he had "significant" concerns with ethical guidelines in the bill. The legislation does not go far enough to prevent clinics from selling embryos to scientists or to specify who has the final say over the implantation of donated embryos, he said.
Those concerns could lead to a "substantial rewriting" of the bill, Frist said.
Still, stem cell supporters reacted with glee to Frist's speech. "Today the majority leader puts principles above politics," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a sponsor of the stem cell expansion bill.
Rep. Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.), who celebrated a birthday Friday, was an author of the bill in the House, where it passed 238-194 in May. "Sen. Frist just gave me the very best birthday present I've ever gotten," she said.
At the same time, the announcement shocked those conservatives who strongly back Bush's limits.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who opposes embryonic stem cell research, said he was "disappointed" by Frist's remarks. "He concedes [an embryo is] human life but in a utilitarian view we should go ahead and get something out of this," he said.
"Sen. Frist is a good man but he is simply advocating a bad policy," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
Announcement's Effects Unclear
Frist, in addition to serving as Republican leader in the Senate, also carries significant weight with colleagues on health and medical issues because of his experience as a heart transplant surgeon. Many senators said in interviews that his support could convince some wavering colleagues to vote for the bill.
But it remained unclear what effect the move would have on the debate. The bill has languished for weeks as senators failed to agree on whether to debate the bill alone or together with at least six other bills addressing cloning, new stem cell technologies, and other issues.
Stem cell supporters have demanded a vote on their measure alone, while opponents wanted to add debate on the other issues. Frist has sided with opponents on the issue and Friday signaled no willingness to deviate from that strategy.
"He still wants to make sure that fair treatment is afforded to all of those who have a bill," Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said.
Frist informed Bush Thursday night of his planned speech, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Friday. McClellan said that "nothing has changed" in terms of Bush's threat to veto an expansion to his stem cell policy.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a pro-life lawmaker who also supports embryonic stem cell research, said in an interview that he would use Frist's support in an effort to convince the president to change his mind on embryonic stem cell research.
"I think as he continues to study this he will feel like many others and say 'what's wrong with helping the living,'" he said.
The American Diabetes Association and other research groups praised Frist's announcement Friday. "The Senate has an opportunity to help advance the search for better treatments and a cure for diabetes. With Dr. Frist's support, it is an opportunity that will not be wasted," ADA president Robert A. Rizza, MD, said in a statement.