Stem cell research is again a hot political issue. Scientists, biotech companies and patients' groups continue their public relations campaign to force President Bush to change his funding policy. On Monday Sen. John Kerry accused the president of "sacrificing science for ideology and playing politics with people who need cures," adding that treatments "could be right at our fingertips" were it not for "the stem cell ban."
Sadly, this rhetoric utterly distorts the president's policy, ignores the weighty moral issues involved and seeks electoral advantage by cruelly exploiting the hopes of patients and their families. We need to set the record straight.
Wise public policy concerning embryonic stem cell research must attend to three important -- sometimes competing -- responsibilities: to seek scientific knowledge and cures for terrible diseases, to protect human life in all its vulnerable stages, and to respect the diverse yet deeply held moral views of the American people. The president's policy on funding this research offers a prudent means of doing all three. It provides an effective way to vigorously promote embryonic stem cell research and seek cures for disease without violating respect for nascent human life, and without conferring the nation's official blessing, through the awarding of federal taxpayer dollars, on practices many Americans find morally reprehensible.
The Bush policy takes very seriously the potential of stem cell research to provide cures for chronic diseases and disabilities. Far from banning it, the president has made federal funding available for embryonic stem cell research for the first time. The National Institutes of Health budget for embryonic stem cell research has risen from zero in 2001 to $24.8 million in 2003; the policy sets no funding cap on future budgetary increases. The NIH has built an in-house laboratory to characterize and test stem cell lines; created a Stem Cell Task Force to determine priorities and allocate resources accordingly; made numerous grants to individual researchers and institutions; plans to fund three new multidisciplinary "centers of excellence" around the country to focus on stem cell research directed at specific diseases; and is developing a centralized stem cell bank of the eligible lines to make them more easily and cheaply accessible to scientists.
Thanks to the NIH's scientific and legal efforts, 22 lines of eligible stem cells are available, up from just one line in the summer of 2002, with more coming -- enough lines for years of essential basic research that must precede any future therapy. Nearly 500 shipments of cells have already been made to researchers; 3,500 more sit ready for delivery upon request. There is no shortage of embryonic stem cells.
In addition, the current policy offers abundant federal support for promising, morally unproblematic research using non-embryonic (adult) stem cells. Also, private investment has mushroomed, with stem cell research centers newly created at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Stanford, among other universities. Far from banning stem cell research, the Bush policy offers public funds to advance such research in a vigorous and responsible way, and leaves it free to advance further with private funds.
Unlike its critics who see only "ideology," the Bush policy recognizes the moral difficulty surrounding the research and upholds important moral values. Derivation of embryonic stem cells requires the deliberate destruction of 5- to 6-day-old human embryos. The moral issue does not disappear just because the embryos are very small or because they are no longer wanted for reproductive purposes: Because they are living human embryos, destroying them is not a morally neutral act. Just as no society can afford to be callous to the needs of suffering humanity, none can afford to be cavalier about how it treats nascent human life.
Since 1995 Congress has annually reaffirmed (with bipartisan support) its respect for early human life in the Dickey amendment, which forbids federal funding of research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed. The president's policy upholds not only the letter but also the moral spirit of that law. By restricting federal funding to research using only those embryonic stem cell lines that were already in existence (the embryo-destroying deed having already been done), the policy refuses to be complicit in or to reward future destructive and coarsening practices. It promotes health without violating life or the law of the land.
The Bush policy also offers a prudent means of addressing a divisive public question. By refusing to reward future embryo destruction, it respects those who regard this practice as immoral. Yet by refraining from banning embryo-destroying research in the private sector, it also respects those for whom the moral balance favors sacrificing embryos for the sake of medical progress. The policy offers hope to those who might be aided by stem cell medicine in the future without recklessly trampling over the most cherished moral ideals of their fellow citizens.
It is not the president but his critics who are playing politics with the people who need cures. It is cruel to suggest that stem-cell-based therapies are "at our fingertips" when our best scientists have made it clear that it will be at least several decades before anyone's disease or disability might be cured by this means. It is cruel to suggest that a reversal of the current Bush policy -- dishonestly labeled a "ban" -- is all that scientists need to enable the wheelchair-bound to walk again, and soon.
Stem cell research -- embryonic and adult -- is a field of great potential, though it is much too early to know where it will lead. Now is the time for the researchers to take advantage of the great existing opportunities open for exploration. Now is the time for the demagoguery to stop.
The writer is chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics and is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.