Putting Progress Before Politics

Stem cell advocates are seeking compromise to advance life-saving research

Stem cell research proponents are willing to compromise to keep research moving forward; it’s a deal that the president shouldn’t resist.

Stem cell opponents once again stood in the way of potentially life-saving cures this week with the president’s decision to ignore the will of the people and a bipartisan majority of Congress by vetoing vital stem cell legislation. Pandering to his dwindling political base, the president has put politics before cures and let narrow ideology rather than science guide research.

Yet supporters of stem cell research, understanding the importance of moving this science forward in the next two years, have proposed a compromise that fits within the president’s tortured logic. Now is his chance to show what he cares about more: helping millions of suffering Americans or playing politics with vital research.

With an override of the Bush veto all but impossible, supporters of stem cell research moved quickly to find other means of moving the research forward. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) put a provision in an upcoming appropriations bill that would expand the number of lines eligible for federal spending. The provision would change the president’s arbitrary restriction of funding for stem cell research from stem cell lines derived as of August 9, 2001 to those derived as of June 15, 2007.

By moving up the deadline for eligibility, this measure would allow federal researchers to use the newest available stem cell lines. Since the president’s original executive order, the number of federally approved stem cell lines usable for research has fallen to around 20. These lines have all been contaminated by the mouse feeder cells used to grow them, and will continue to develop genetics mutations as they age.

Researchers have meanwhile derived hundreds of new stem cell lines using better methods that avoid contamination. These lines have proven much more popular among scientists than the federally approved lines, even though they are ineligible for federal funding.

The provision is also attentive to the president’s strange rationale for his stem cell policy. While professing to believe that embryos are sacred human life, he appears to be more concerned with restricting federal funding than actually prohibiting the research. In particular, President Bush contends that he will only support research on lines derived from embryos “where the life and death decision has already been made.”

Of course, the legislation the president vetoed does just that: it would only have allowed federal funding for cell lines derived from excess embryos at fertility clinics, which would otherwise be disposed of as medical waste. Yet the new provision is even more explicitly fitted to his logic. The cell lines have already been created and are even being used for research in other countries and by private researchers. There is no reason not to put the tremendous funding strength of the federal government behind research using these lines.

And what’s more, most couples actually making the decision want to donate embryos for research. A recent study shows that 62 percent of couples want to donate their excess embryos for research, while only 22 percent want to donate them to another couple—the president’s preferred use of excess embryos. Rather than dictate to these couples the most personal of choices, shouldn’t we allow them to use excess embryos to speed the race to life-saving cures?

This compromise provision will not replace the legislation the president vetoed. It’s a stopgap measure intended to help move the science forward until we have a new president who supports this research. But it will be crucial for maintaining momentum in the field, encouraging young scientists to pursue this research, and giving increased hope to millions of suffering Americans.

We need to move forward on stem cell research now. Two years is too long to wait for true federal support for this research. Proponents of this research have made an attempt to reach a compromise. Perhaps it’s time for “the decider” to reconsider his decision.

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Sam Berger

Former Vice President, Democracy and Government Reform