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Bad Medicine, Again: Bush Stem Cell Veto All Wrong

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In a dubious historic achievement, the Bush White House has now twice exercised its veto over a bill that was twice passed with bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress—once when Congress was controlled by Republicans, once when controlled by Democrats. The bill that would make more stem cell lines eligible for federal research funding is supported by a solid majority of Americans in every survey and by every major medical research organization and university in the country.

Even the president’s own director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, told the Senate that, due to Bush administration policy, scientists in the United States were trying to do their work “with one hand behind our backs.”

The administration cites an ethical objection to research that would involve the destruction of human embryos. Yet surely the administration knows that by federal rules no tax dollars can be used to destroy embryos, only to conduct research using the potent cells that come from them. And surely the administration also knows that the embryos would come from fertility clinics with no chance of being implanted into a woman, and with full informed consent of the couple, and no money changing hands.

This White House believes itself to be in a better position to judge what should be done with these stem cells than the men and women who donate them.

White House officials may protest that recent scientific papers present other possible cell sources. Yet not a single scientist who is pursuing research on any kind of cell has said that research involving embryonic stem cells should stop. On the contrary, because scientists know well that a single approach is unlikely to provide a universal solution, they are as one in advocating funding from all sources and for all types of stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cell research will continue in spite of this veto, but it will have to be done largely without federal funds, which are by far the largest single source of research support in the world. And it will be done in other countries. Years from now Nobel prizes for breakthroughs in the use of stem cells may be awarded to scientists only just beginning their careers. Unfortunately, those awards could go to those getting started on this research outside of the United States, and Americans’ access to new therapies may be compromised by intellectual property held in other countries.

Eventually, the US policy will change, too late to prevent the ill effects now radiating through the most exciting new field of medical research in decades. Will the Bush administration officials who oppose this work be prepared to forego new treatments that emerge from embryonic stem cell research when their own health or that of their loved ones is at stake?

That is a question the American people deserve to have answered.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor and Professor of Medical Ethics and the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Sam Berger is a Researcher at the Center for American Progress.

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