A Matter of Science

Saturday, July 30, 2005

ON MEDICAL ISSUES, a subject for which his heart surgeon credentials give him unusual expertise and influence, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has a mixed record. Earlier this year he shamed himself with his assessment-by-videotape of Terri Schiavo, in which questioned her doctors' judgment that she was in a vegetative state. Mr. Frist deserves credit, though, for his announcement yesterday that he will break with President Bush and support legislation that would liberalize the administration's policy on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. In the face of evidence that the existing rules are impeding valuable research, this is the only sensible conclusion -- one that ought to make the president reconsider his veto threat.

The emotional debate involves whether to allow scientists to use embryos left over from in vitro fertilization to generate new stem cell lines. The current policy permits federally funded scientists to use only existing stem cell lines, not to destroy additional embryos to develop new ones. Even though the embryos at issue would be discarded in any event, this might have been a reasonable compromise had those lines proved adequate to the promising research that has been taking place in this field.

However, as Mr. Frist related yesterday, only 22 lines are now eligible for federal funding, instead of the 78 originally foreseen by the administration, and some of those are deteriorating or contaminated. As a result, Mr. Frist said yesterday, "the limitation put into place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases." This matters, as Mr. Frist said, because "embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells just cannot provide." Moreover, alternative techniques that could produce useful stem cells without requiring embryo destruction, although worthy of funding and further study, remain too uncertain to justify blocking use of existing embryos. "It's not just a matter of faith, it's a matter of science," Mr. Frist said.

The stem cell measure passed the House in May by 238 to 194; a companion bill, sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), is expected to come to the Senate floor this fall. Mr. Frist's general endorsement -- he said he wanted to see stronger ethical safeguards -- "is a speech that will be heard around the world, especially at the White House," Mr. Specter said yesterday. "I know that the president will listen to what Sen. Frist had to say." We hope that doesn't prove overly optimistic. "The president's made his position very clear," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "Nothing's changed in terms of his position." Change will come only if Mr. Bush follows Mr. Frist's example, and lets the facts affect his conclusions.

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