Meeting Stem Cells' Promise -- Ethically

By Bill Frist
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A19

I am pro-life. I recognize that human life begins at conception; before coming to the Senate, I spent my life practicing medicine in order to save lives. Today, as the Senate discusses legislation about cutting-edge biological research, we will shape our debate around three separate proposals. All three are consistent with my deep-seated belief that human life has value at all stages of development.

While a law that would expand the range of stem cells eligible for federal funding has received the most attention, I think it is equally important that the Senate pass measures that will place "moral guardrails" around future research and accelerate efforts to find alternative means of securing cells for research.

These legislative proposals are important because embryonic stem cell research presents so many ethical quandaries and holds so much scientific promise. Each human embryo represents a nascent, genetically distinct human life and thus has tremendous moral significance.

Because they have a property called pluripotence -- the ability to become almost any other type of body cell -- embryonic stem cells could eventually help treat spinal cord injuries, mitigate diabetes, repair damaged organs, relieve pain and preserve lives. Even though cures may take years to develop, I believe that we cannot ignore the promise these cells hold. But I also believe that whatever research the federal government funds should follow clear ethical guidelines and use only embryos that would otherwise be destroyed.

Under President Bush's current policy, however, scientists can use federal funds only for research on embryonic stem cell lines -- groups of specific cell types maintained in the laboratory for research -- that existed before the summer of 2001. While researchers initially believed that experiments using 80 lines could receive federal funding, in fact, only about a quarter of that number can. Even though the president has made it clear that he will veto any bill that changes his policy, I believe that the progress of science and a pro-life position demand that Congress send a message.

Thus I'm supporting legislation that's gotten enormous attention: a bill that will let scientists use federal funds for research with embryonic stem cells derived from embryos that families created for in vitro fertilization but that are now ready to be discarded and destroyed. I hope that we can redeem this loss of life in part by using these embryos to seed research that will save lives in the future. Under this policy, so long as they follow ethical guidelines, researchers will have as many stem cell lines as they can produce.

At the same time, I recognize that research involving nascent human lives needs clear, strict safeguards. That's why I will also support a bill that would ban scientists from implanting human embryos in order to abort them for experimentation, thus placing important moral boundaries around biomedical innovation. Quite simply, we need to draw a bright line against this barbaric practice before it becomes a reality.

Just as importantly, the Senate will also vote on increasing funding for research methods that would create pluripotent stem cells without harming or destroying human embryos. As Robert P. George and Eric Cohen noted recently on this page [July 6], new scientific techniques could create pluripotent stem cells without the need to destroy a single human embryo.

If these techniques proved effective, they would assuage many Americans' legitimate reservations about stem cell research while simultaneously moving science forward.

The debate over embryonic stem cell research will never prove simple. Congress isn't always the best forum to hash out complicated bioethical issues. But it appears inevitable that we will confront these questions time and again as science advances.

The three-bill package the Senate will vote on both recognizes stem cell research's potential to cure and confronts the ethical dilemmas it implies. Because it does both of these things, I believe it will protect human dignity, treat disease and save lives.

The writer, a Republican from Tennessee, is the Senate majority leader.

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