Don’t Cell Out the American People

The Senate has a rare opportunity this election year to transcend partisan posturing and pass stem cell legislation that has widespread, bipartisan support. Rather than divert valuable time to constitutional amendments that are championed by narrow special interests, Congress should support the scientific progress and potential cures for debilitating diseases that millions of Americans desire. The federal government needs to work quickly to regain the people’s faith; already, state legislators across the country are trying to fill the research void left by federal inaction. While the efforts of state governments to respond to the concerns of their citizens should be applauded, true progress cannot be made until the federal government makes an equal commitment to the American public= Federal funding and regulation are crucial to effectively and ethically conducting embryonic stem cell (ESC) research.

The Senate should pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which expands federal funding for stem cell research beyond the few stem cell lines currently approved to include lines derived from excess embryos at fertility clinics. Almost a year ago, similar legislation in the House passed with broad support from both sides of the aisle. After the passage of the House bill, the American people were hopeful that the Senate would quickly vote on the legislation as well, particularly since it received support from a bipartisan group of senators including Ted Kennedy, Diane Feinstein, Tom Harkin, Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter. Nine months after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist promised the Senate would consider the bill, however, there has been no vote and no floor time has been reserved to discuss the legislation. This inaction in the months before an election would be expected of a controversial bill, but the Stem Cell Enhancement Act is no such thing. ESC research is widely supported; recent polls suggest support for ESC research among the public is anywhere from 5767%, and support comes from states as geographically and ideologically diverse as Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Michigan, New York and Texas. The public’s desire for ESC research even extends beyond the provisions of this compromise bill; a majority of Americans support creating stem cells through the therapeutic cloning technique somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which this bill does not address.

Special interest opponents of stem cell research argue that the Senate does not have the time to address this critical bill. Despite important pending business on immigration and tax reconciliation to consider, Senator Frist has said he will find time to discuss two controversial constitutional amendments, prohibiting flag-burning and gay marriage, before the November elections. Apparently, some Senators care less about the opinions of ordinary Americans and more about catering to conservative special interest groups. Recent polls show that 63% of Americans oppose the flag-burning amendment and that the public is sharply divided on the issue of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage; both of these amendments have repeatedly failed to pass the Senate, and are expected to do so again this year. Time on the Senate floor is too precious to waste on these ill-conceived amendments while widely supported stem cell legislation languishes.

Recognizing the lack of congressional action, state legislatures have worked to support the vital research, but they need federal funding and regulation. Besides the well-known stem cell initiatives in New Jersey, Connecticut and California, funding for ESC research has recently been approved in Maryland, which devoted $15 million, and Illinois, which devoted $10 million. In New York, gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer announced that if elected he would ask for a $1 billion bond to support stem cell research, saying, “If Washington is going to fail us, states must step into the breach.” While these efforts to support stem cell research are admirable, they do not offset the lack of federal involvement. Federal funding is important not only to provide stem cell researchers with the resources they need, but also to provide the ethical and procedural regulations they demand. While current stem cell initiatives have adopted the comprehensive guidelines outlined by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), there is potential for ESC research to proceed in the private sector without these necessary regulations and safeguards. The federal government must fund ESC research, not only to ensure that the science proceeds rapidly, but also to ensure that it proceeds ethically.

Congress has been given a great gift this election year. Buffeted by pervasive public disapproval of its job performance and gridlocked by its inability to move beyond partisan bickering, the Senate has a chance to pass a bill with widespread public support. Instead of political posturing to appease interest groups with ill-fated constitutional amendments that lack mainstream support, the Senate should focus on bipartisan stem cell legislation that the majority of people desperately want. Senator Frist is right that “when America’s values are under attack, we need to act,” particularly when the value in question is whether our government is of, for and by the people, or special interest groups.

Stem Cell Fact Sheet (PDF), May 26, 2006

Sam Berger is a Fellows Assistant at the Center for American Progress.