Sound, Fury and Substance: The Stem Cell Legislation Package

The Senate is poised to vote on three stem cell bills, but only one is important. Real support for stem cell research will only come with the passage of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would allow federal funding for research using stem cell lines derived from donated excess embryos. The other two bills have been packaged with this legislation to provide political cover for conservative politicians. If all three bills pass the Senate, the president is expected to sign the other two bills and use the first veto of his presidency on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act.

The two bills the president is expected to sign, Senator Brownback’s Fetus Farming Prohibition Act and the Santorum-Specter bill to encourage alternative means of deriving embryonic stem cell lines, will have no effect on current stem cell research. Much like the earlier debates over the constitutional amendments against flag burning and gay marriage, these two bills are intended to mollify the conservative base and distract from the real issue: the widespread, bipartisan support to expand the number of stem cell lines eligible for federal funding.

This Senate and president have recently seemed more concerned with useless gestures than legislative action, focusing on ill-conceived, unnecessary and inflammatory legislation instead of addressing the issues of real concern to Americans. Senator Frist has been slow to keep his promise to bring the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act to a vote, instead wasting precious Senate time on the Flag Protection and Marriage Protection amendments. Having finally acceded to the demands of a bipartisan group of Senators, as well as the 70% of Americans who support embryonic stem cell research, Senator Frist appears to be making the same mistake again. Rather than simply debating the important issue of expanding federal funding eligibility to include research using uncontaminated stem cell lines derived from excess embryos from in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics, Frist is cluttering the floor with unneeded legislation to shield conservatives from well deserved criticism.

Senator Brownback’s Fetus Farming Prohibition Act is strangely reminiscent of the Flag Protection Amendment — a solution in search of a problem. The bill would ban people from initiating a pregnancy in order to obtain fetal tissue for research purposes. While that would be wrong, the legislation is useless because no researcher anywhere in the country is proposing to do any such thing, and the scientific community opposes such research. But why does Senator Brownback feel it is necessary to ban an activity that no one is interested in pursuing? The obvious answer is that it’s easy to pass and he can take credit for it with radical conservative groups, while scaring up fears of mad scientists acting outside the constraints of ethics.

The Senate will also be considering the Santorum-Specter bill to encourage the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund alternative means of deriving stem cells. This bill evokes memories of the Marriage Protection Amendment, a superfluous bill that addressed an issue that is already settled in the law. Deriving embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos could potentially ease a number of ethical qualms, although not as many as its supporters would like. The problem with this legislation is that it would not accomplish anything; the NIH is already able to fund these alternative methods of deriving stem cells. As James Battey, the chairman of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force, said at a Senate hearing on the bill, “The NIH is already in a position to support research on alternative methods for deriving stem cells in animal model systems.” What this bill could indirectly accomplish, however, is to divert NIH funds from far more promising embryonic stem cell research towards lengthy, costly and potentially fruitless attempts to derive these same stem cells in different ways.

The only bill that supports actual stem cell research is the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, cosponsored by Senators Harkin and Specter. This bill would allow the NIH to provide funding to scientists who conduct research using stem cell lines derived from any of the 400,000 excess IVF embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. Currently, federally funded scientists can only use 21 stem cell lines, all of which have been contaminated and are unfit for humans, while foreign scientists and private researchers use the more recent and clinically useful lines.

We need to stop forcing American scientists to conduct research with one hand tied behind their backs. The Senate must act on the legislation that will actually help our researchers, and not simply support bills that sound unnecessary support for unnecessary research or demonstrate a righteous fury against non-existent mad scientists. We need this Congress and our president to pass stem cell legislation of substance, and not legislation that, as Macbeth might say, is simply “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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