Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Stem Cells & Bill Frist

Newsweek's Howard Fineman and Tamara Lipper team up to highlight the trouble Bill Frist might soon have in attempting to deal with the stem cell issue in the Senate (basic message: "If you thought last week was bad! ...). As Joe Gandelman and others have done, Fineman and Lipper declare Senators Specter and McCain "the ones to watch" in the Republican caucus. Specter is a co-sponsor of S. 471, the companion bill to the stem cell measure passed by the House last week, and McCain also supports the measure and has spoken out strongly in its favor.

The article notes that McCain has changed his position on stem cell research since 2000, citing the "advocacy of Nancy Reagan, and because he now better understands the possible medical benefits." Similarly, McCain has since the 2000 campaign embraced legislation to combat global warming, after saying during that contest that he wasn't sure of the seriousness of the issue and that he wanted to learn more. I have no problem with a politician changing positions on an issue after they've become more aware or educated about it; what bothers me about Frist's apparent about-face on stem cells is that it appears to fly in the face of medical advances and everything we've learned since his statements in 2001. Quite simply, it doesn't make any sense.

Fineman and Lipper conclude their piece by saying "As leader, Frist has a large measure of control over which bills are brought up for debate. What will he do? Four years ago, he supported Bush's original judgment call, which was that the Feds could fund study only of existing stem-cell lines. But Frist said at the time that he would be willing to revisit the question as scientific advances warrant. Does he think that time has come? Frist left town late last week without saying. He had a race to start."

Four years ago, Frist's "Principles" on stem cell research went significantly farther than the President's announced policy. Yes, he agreed with Bush once the policy was announced, but prior to that, he supported additional steps, including "Allow federal funding for research using only those embryonic stem cells derived from blastocysts that are left over after in vitro fertilization (IVF) and would otherwise be discarded" [screen grab from Frist's site of the press release]. My question is, what's changed? Research done since 2001 has only bolstered the case that additional stem cell lines could be immensely useful in medical research - I have seen no evidence that indicates otherwise. If Senator Frist has some, I think the country would be most interested in seeing it.


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