Sunday, May 22, 2005

Politics of Stem Cells

As I first noted back in March, the House will vote early this week, possibly as soon as Tuesday, on a measure sponsored by Republican Mike Castle (DE) and Democrat Diana DeGette (CO). H.R. 810, "To amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for human embryonic stem cell research," would allow federal funding on any human stem cells that were "derived from human embryos that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for the purposes of fertility treatment, and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment," provided that "Prior to the consideration of embryo donation and through consultation with the individuals seeking fertility treatment, it was determined that the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded."

The measure has wide support in the House, and as of this evening there are more than 200 listed cosponsors, from both sides of the aisle. Its chances of passage in the Senate are also quite good, although there is some question of whether the Republican leadership will bring it to the floor to be voted on. The Castle-DeGette bill is straightforward and clear, allowing federal funds to be used in support of research on stem cells that would otherwise be literally thrown away [there are believed to be approximately 8,000 of these fertilized eggs at fertility clinics around the country]. Talk about squandered opportunities. There is potential for tremendous good with research into these stem cell lines, and federal funding for that research would go far in making that research happen.

A short, clear piece of legislation, with strong bipartisan support, and yet H.R. 810 has elicited one of the rarest things in Washington - a veto threat from President Bush. On Friday, Bush said "I'm a strong supporter of adult stem cell research, of course. But I made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life, is - I'm against that. And therefore, if the bill does that, I will veto it." Does the president really believe that discarded embryos have the potential to do more good by being thrown into wastebaskets at fertility clinics than by being used in research that could result in treatments for various thus-far-incurable health conditions and diseases?

Like President Bush, I have concerns about a slippery slope that could lead to reproductive cloning, which I do not think is a route that humans as a species should travel under any circumstance (we're trying to stuff too many people on this planet as it is). However, I do not believe that the language of H.R. 810 would send us down that road; the provisions are unequivocal, setting strict qualifications for the circumstances under which research would be permitted on these fertility clinic embryos. This is in no way "destroying life in order to save life" - quite simply, this is using material (whether life or not, a distinction I will leave to the ethicists) that would be destroyed anyway, in order to facilitate research that could potentially save millions of lives.

I agree with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a longtime opponent of abortion rights, who told the New York Times "Those leftover eggs will have no potential ever of becoming a human being unless they are implanted in a woman's body, so I don't believe that experimenting on those fertilized eggs is the equivalent of an abortion at all. I think that is wrong thinking."

A positive vote on H.R. 810 in the House this week would represent a rare victory for centrist bipartisanship, something sorely needed in America right now. And if President Bush is shopping around for a bill to use his first veto on, I would suggest a particularly bloated highway bill that will appear on his desk sometime soon. I think most taxpayers would rather have some of their money invested in research that might someday cure Parkinson's or Alzheimer's (or x, y, or z) than on such projects as a $1.5 million bus stop in Anchorage, Alaska. I know I would.


At 8:53 AM, Blogger EG said...

What I don't understand about Bush is he knew this was coming down the pike and never suggested alternative bill that excluded human embryo stem cells.

That is, Bush could have suggested an alternative bill that called for more funding of placenta stem cell or adult stem cell research. He now looks like he's against medical research. Offering an alternative bill would allow him to be for medical research and to stick to his principles.

I believe most medical researchers hold little promise for placenta or adult stem cells but I don't think these options have been exhausted.

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Jonathan C said...

As I've mentioned on my own blog, I'm guessing that the President is lobbying heavily for this bill never to see the light of day in the Senate. I really don't think he wants to veto a piece of legislation with such broad public support. Such a move would be a HUGE potential fundraiser for progressive organizations everywhere, and would further isolate blue state Republicans, regardless of the way they vote on this particular bill.

On the broader debate, why do pro-life advocates drew such a sharp line at stem cell research? If they were to be morally consistent on the issue, they should be arguing against any in vitro fertilization practice that creates more embryos than can be used. No one really believes that the thousands upon thousands of frozen IVF embryos will ever become fully developed humans, so why don't they take issue at this inifinite purgatory? Of course, the answer to that question is that IVF is now regarded as an essential domain of the medicinal world. They may as well try to argue against open heart surgery.


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