Bush Takes Center Field on Stem Cell Funding Issue

Published September 1, 2001

Six months ago, it would have been impossible to predict the stem cell research issue might become a defining moment for President George W. Bush and his administration. Even now, the jury is out, but one thing is certain: The issue has advanced to the political and public forefront almost overnight.

The discussion has moved forward so quickly that many of the details remain elusive to most citizens and most policymakers. This is an issue so complex many people find the more they learn about it, the more complex it gets.

According to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, the President came to realize the issue was more complicated than he originally thought when he made a campaign promise to block all federal funding. By delaying his decision, Bush invited pressure from all sides of the issue, including Pope John Paul II, who condemned stem cell research as “tragic.”

Funding Is Key

The current controversy turns not on whether stem cell research should be allowed to continue, but, as Dr. Merrill Matthews notes on page ###, on whether the federal government should fund it. With or without government funding, research groups can still harvest or create human embryos and even clone them. Moreover, even if stem cell research were to become illegal in this country, the research would continue in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

According to information released by Jack Oliver, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, Bush will not allow any federal funds for: (1) the use of stem cell lines derived from newly destroyed embryos; (2) the creation of human embryos for research purposes; or (3) the cloning of human embryos for any purpose.

Federal funds will be available only for the 60 existing stem cell lines, identified for Bush by the National Institutes for Health, believed to meet three criteria:

  • they were developed with the informed consent of the donors;
  • they were started from excess embryos created solely for reproductive purposes; and
  • they were created without any financial inducements to the donors.

Bush also believes great scientific progress can be made through aggressive federal funding of research on umbilical cord placenta, adult, and animal stem cells that do not raise the moral issues raised by embryonic stem cell research. He has announced the federal government will spend $250 million this year on such research.

Bush is also naming a President’s council that will monitor stem cell research, recommend appropriate guidelines and regulations, and consider the medical and ethical ramifications of biomedical innovation. The council will consist of leading scientists, doctors, ethicists, lawyers, theologians, and others, and will be chaired by Dr. Leon Kass, a leading biomedical ethicist from the University of Chicago.

In the Mainstream

Almost a week before the Bush decision, a USA Today/CNN Gallup survey indicated 55 percent of Americans supported using tax dollars for stem cell research. Sixty-two percent thought the issue was very or somewhat important . . . but 45 percent acknowledged they “have not followed the debate on stem cell research very closely.”

Public support varies not so much on the issue of funding, but on the type of research. While 68 percent of survey respondents supported research from stem cells, just 28 percent supported research on cloned cells. More than half, 55 percent, supported funding embryonic stem cell research only if that research used embryos left over from fertility treatments.

Bush has taken center field on the issue, limiting federal funding to projects already underway, or new projects only if they use the existing 60 stem cell lines. By limiting the number of cell lines that will qualify for research funding, Bush satisfies no one but appeases nearly everyone: anti-abortion activists and scientists alike.

There is some question as to whether the Bush limits will be limiting at all. Rockefeller University biologist Peter Mombaerts told the Wall Street Journal, “Scientists are smart enough that they can set up collaborations with people in Asia, Australia, and the United Kingdom” [where public funded research is not restricted].

But, as the Chicago Tribune reported on August 16, Bush’s compromise was met immediately with doubts as to whether 60 stem cell lines really are available, viable, and widely accessible to researchers. Because the majority of the lines are in private laboratories, NIH will not disclose where they are or who controls them. The agency also can’t vouch for the quality of the cells.

Strange Bedfellows

The stem cell debate has produced some unlikely alliances. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina), who opposes abortion, and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) who favors abortion rights, have teamed up in support of the Bush plan. According to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), the two have secured significant Congressional support urging Bush to allow funding for stem cell research.

Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), a prominent Bush ally, maintains “life begins at conception.” But as a heart transplant surgeon, he recognizes the huge potential of stem cell research and is a vocal proponent of it. “Eighty percent of my colleagues,” he says, “have somebody who is very close to them who is affected” [by a disease that might be cured].

But Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Florida), an abortion foe, questions not only the ethics of stem cell research but the science as well. Like Frist, Weldon is a physician; unlike the enthusiastic Frist, Weldon believes stem cell research proponents are spreading around just so much hype. “It’s science fiction,” Weldon told USA Today. “To hold this out as the viable solution to all these terrible health problems is very disingenuous.”

In a press release following Bush’s televised announcement, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) called the President’s decision “an important step forward.” But, Kennedy said, the Bush plan “does not go far enough to fulfill the life-saving potential of this promising research.” Kennedy added he was optimistic Congress would allow funding for expanded research despite the President’s decision.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-Rhode Island), whose spinal cord was severed 21 years ago, supports the Bush position—even after stem cell research opponents donated more than $110,000 to his election campaign. Langevin argues his position on stem cell research is consistent with his pro-life stand because “stem cell research has the potential of easing the pain and suffering” of not only the inflicted, but of family members as well.

Abortion-rights supporter Rep. Lane Evans (D-Illinois) agrees. Evans, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, told USA Today he’s well aware “many people feel strongly about the right to life. But for me, there is also a right to live.”

Only the Beginning

In a controversy that deeply divides its participants, one thing is certain: The Bush decision on stem cell research has let the genie out of the bottle.

“We’re bumping up against fundamental assumptions about man that are not really provable,” says Rep. Bill Thomas (R-California), one of Congress’s leaders on health care policy. Thomas told the media, “This debate has just begun.”