Stem Cell Showdown

Monday, July 17, 2006

IT SHOULDN'T have taken this long, but this week the Senate plans to take up a proposal to expand the availability of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research -- specifically, to let scientists who receive government money develop new stem cell lines from embryos left over from fertility treatments. Passing this measure, already approved by the House, would be the wise, ethical and scientifically justified thing to do; under the agreed-upon rules, it will require 60 Senate votes. Unfortunately, President Bush has reasserted his threat to cast his first veto on this issue; a White House spokesman says the legislation "crosses an important moral line." We hope the president will reconsider -- and that a strong show of Senate support will encourage him to do so.

The existing limit on research -- allowing researchers to use only existing lines of stem cells -- has proved unduly restrictive. When Mr. Bush announced that he would permit the use of existing stem cell lines almost five years ago, that compromise made sense. But instead of the 78 lines originally foreseen by the administration, only 22 are available, and some of those are deteriorating or contaminated.

Research into alternative sources of stem cells, while promising and important, remains too far from fruition to justify the continuing ban on using discarded embryos. A vote for a companion stem cell measure that would encourage such research is fine -- the bill would simply reaffirm what is already taking place -- but it cannot substitute for loosening the rules on embryonic research. As Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said last year when he announced his change of heart on the issue, "the limitation put into place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases."

We respect those who believe that destroying an embryo is taking a human life and that the government should not pay for it. But the stark fact is that the embryos that would be made available for use under this legislation would be destroyed in any event. They were created for purposes of in vitro fertilization with the full expectation that not all would be used; there are currently some 400,000 such excess embryos. The measure requires a determination that the embryos used for stem cell research "would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded." Those seeking the fertility treatment must have "donated the embryos with written informed consent and without receiving any financial or other inducements to make the donation."

Thus, no embryo would be destroyed that would not have been destroyed anyway. And research can proceed that holds out hope for saving actual, not potential, human life.

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