June 21, 2007

Putting Politics over Progress on Stem Cells

Print More

Congress has returned to its old games on embryonic stem cells. Having just passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, which federally funds embryonic stem cells, Congress forced President Bush’s hand into vetoing this legislation. Democrats have pledged to override Bush’s veto, but they face one critical obstacle: they do not have enough votes. The act passed 63-34 in the Senate and 247-167 in the House, both short of the requisite two-thirds vote to override a veto.

Embryonic stem cells, while offering potential for dramatic therapies and cures, have always raised controversy because some consider embryos to be a form of human life. Now, the most recent legislation only allows leftover embryos intended for fertility treatments, not research, to be used if the embryos would otherwise be discarded. The problem, though, as decades of court decisions on abortion have taught us, is that “intended for fertility treatments” can be broadly construed just as the “health exception” that allows abortions is. One can easily donate embryos to fertility clinics where excess embryos already exist or, even worse, to fertilization clinics built by private researchers in places where demand for fertility treatments is small, just like one can easily write off an unwanted pregnancy by finding some obscure way it affects the individual’s health. While a woman has few practical alternatives in her mind to an unwanted pregnancy besides abortion, however, alternatives to embryonic stem cells offer much more potential and progress, making this moral controversy unnecessary.

A major recent development in stem cell research has tipped the balance away from embryonic stem cells. Scientists have discovered a way to create stem cells from regular skin cells in mice. MIT stem cell biologist Rudolf Jaenisch described these cells as “identical to embryonic stem cells.” So why promote embryonic stem cells with their moral controversies, when you have new, identical technology that can thrive with federal funding that avoids the moral dilemma?

Even before this development, adult stem cells, unlike their embryonic counterparts, have managed to find their way into the news several times. Back in 2005, the Heritage Foundation noted that blood from umbilical cords has treated 66 diseases and over 6,000 patients. Meanwhile, not a single clinical human trial on embryonic stem cell has been conducted. Embryonic therapies have probably made some progress since 2005, but the basic fact remains the same: other stem cells have a better track record. Even if embryonic stem cells have a couple of success stories, they do not represent an efficient use of money. Emphasizing the need for embryonic stem cells makes about as much sense as the Toronto Blue Jays leaving pitcher Tomo Ohka in the starting rotation. Toronto wised up and released Ohka because of his lack of results. Hopefully, we can come to the same realization for embryonic stem cells.

Although I have recognized this fact, it did not occur to me immediately. I supported this legislation in the past; even former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist did, and today Giuliani and McCain are supporters. However, every time I see progress with other stem cells, and every time I go deeper with my research, my support for this legislation slowly fades away. One Republican presidential candidate who opposes this legislation, Mitt Romney, had a similar experience. In fact, evaluating embryonic stem cells and cloning in-depth played a huge role changing his political views into the staunch pro-life stance he currently holds. Today, he opposes this legislation, instead pushing for more ethical options such as Altered Nuclear Transfer. In fact, I believe many people who go beyond the rhetoric and emotional appeals would find this stance agreeable. The practical benefits of the alternatives do not justify raising moral issues by continually pushing embryonic stem cells.

Meanwhile, another bill in the Senate, S. 30, the “Hope Offered through Principled and Ethical Stem Cell Research Act” or “HOPE Act,” avoids funding research that destroys embryos. Instead, it promotes the development of other stem cells, including pluripotent stem cells — stem cells that have the potential to change into multiple (or plural) cell types, offering flexibility similar to what embryonic stem cells offer. The Senate passed this legislation by a 70-28 margin. Now not only would President Bush agree to this bill, but the Senate could override the President’s veto even if he did not agree to it. No word on whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be willing to compromise by letting the House vote on this, or whether she’ll choose to play politics once again.

The Democratic Congress, now enjoying an approval rating lower than Bush’s, the lowest since the final days of the Democratic Congress in 1994 (just before the Republicans gained 54 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate), faces two choices. It can continue to push this polarizing course of action on embryonic stem cells, making another hollow promise to override Bush’s veto. Or, given the recent developments of alternative stem cell techniques, the proven track record of adult stem cells, and the bipartisan consensus behind alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, House Democrats can pass the HOPE Act and send it to the President’s desk to be signed. If they do not, hope will fade, both for the HOPE Act and for the Democratic Congress.