Splitting stem cells: Congress is finally drawing some policy lines

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Wall Street Journal

Politics always trails the rush of science, especially on matters of moral import. So we'd like to break type and praise this week's Senate debate over federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Congress is finally drawing some policy lines and working toward a social consensus rather than abandoning the ethics to an unelected scientific elite.

Supporters of unlimited taxpayer support are upset that President Bush cast his first veto on a bill that would have lifted his 2001 restrictions on federal funding. Under those rules, federal cash (some $90 million) has flowed to embryonic stem-cell lines that existed as of that date, but no taxpayer money supports research that would destroy new embryos.

To many scientists and Democrats, this issue can be distilled to a choice between America's leading the world in medical progress, or lapsing into Luddite religiosity. Their pressure inspired 63 Senators, including 19 Republicans, to oppose Mr. Bush and support more federal funding. Yet as the President's veto -- and Congress's failure to override -- shows, many Americans disagree and are troubled by what they believe is the destruction of an early stage of human life.

Our own view is that the embryos from which stem cells are collected have the potential to be -- but are not yet -- human beings. This is the dominant view across U.S. society, which is one reason there is little controversy over fertility treatments, in which embryos are routinely created and discarded. Private stem-cell research on these discarded embryos remains legal, and, contrary to much political spin, private funding is plentiful.

No less than 11 private stem-cell research centers exist across the country; Harvard alone employs more than 100 researchers and has 17 new stem-cell lines. More than 60 U.S. and international companies are pursuing stem-cell research -- from such giants as Johnson & Johnson to start-ups. In 2005, the venture-capital industry put more than $102 million into the stem-cell industry. All of this casts doubt on the claim that America is "losing" quality researchers to other countries for lack of funding.

The main political rub concerns taxpayer funding, and several states (such as Connecticut and Illinois) have already decided to allow it. California, as usual, is spending the most at $3 billion. But Mr. Bush is hardly taking some extremist point of view in opposing it. At least since the Hyde Amendment passed in 1976, a similar compromise has prevailed on abortion. Abortion is legal, but taxpayers aren't obliged to pay for a practice they find morally objectionable. The European Union is currently having its own debate over whether to allow public funding of embryonic research, with those member states opposed to government involvement poised to win that battle.

Especially at the start of this brave new world of genetic research involving humans, some moral caution may be wise. As Mr. Bush put it in his veto statement: "If this bill were to become law, American taxpayers for the first time in our history would be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos." Whether or not you agree with Mr. Bush's moral judgment about embryos, you can't deny that he's representing a significant chunk of American public opinion.

Lost amid the veto politics this week was the fact that Congress also moved in other ways on ethics and medical research. Mr. Bush signed a bill passed unanimously by the House and Senate that outlawed "fetal farming," or the practice of raising and aborting fetuses for scientific research. The Senate also passed legislation that would have encouraged greater research into exploiting the stem cells scientists need without destroying embryos, as well as research into adult stem cells. That bill failed in the House, mainly because Democrats think they can use stem cells as a political issue against Republicans this fall.

There are other issues that Congress could usefully address in the months ahead. The Senate still hasn't passed a ban on human cloning, a practice that the public widely opposes and which dozens of countries (and even the U.N.) have already outlawed. And a California taxpayers' group recently filed legal challenges to patent protections on embryonic stem-cell research, a reminder that issues of intellectual property and trade secrets in medical research are still contentious and unsettled. Only this week, a story in the Journal pointed to patent problems as a bigger factor than money in driving stem-cell research out of the United States.

This week's partisan jockeying aside, the good news is that politicians have begun to debate these profound moral questions. Yes, politicians will sometimes succumb to cheap rhetoric and distortion, but given enough time and information the public can usually understand the real stakes.

In any case, we'd rather have a messy political brawl than leave such matters to elites in science, the media or the judiciary to settle. As we've seen with global warming and other issues, scientists can also be motivated by self-interest and partisanship. The louder and longer the political debate, the better informed the public will be. Come to think of it, maybe we need a few more such veto fights.

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