SINCE THE DEATH of Christopher Reeve, the wheelchair-bound actor and advocate, the issue of stem cell research has taken on a new importance in the presidential campaign. This is partly because Mr. Reeve was a brave and popular man and partly because so many in Hollywood and elsewhere had taken up the cause of stem cell research on his behalf. Unfortunately, the campaign rhetoric about stem cells is misleading. President Bush has not "banned" this form of research, as Sen. John F. Kerry has claimed; nor would a more permissive Bush policy have led to Mr. Reeve's walking anytime soon. But there is an important debate on stem cell research to be had.
The real issue is whether the president's complicated and nuanced stem cell compromise has lived up to its advance billing. In 2001, when he laid it out, the president's intention was to come up with a policy that allowed research to go forward but didn't force American taxpayers who believe that life begins at conception to pay for something they believed to be immoral. The result was indeed confusing, and it was limiting, but it was not a ban: Embryonic stem cell research could receive federal funding as long as scientists made use of stem cell lines already in existence at the time. When he announced his policy, the president said there were "more than 60" such genetically diverse stem cell lines available. In 2003 nearly $25 million of federal funding was spent on them.
At the time, we thought that was a reasonable compromise but felt the issue should be reviewed as the science evolved. And in the past few years, the facts have indeed changed: It now seems that not 60 to 70 but fewer than 20 stem cell lines are, in practice, available for research. In a somewhat cryptic statement last spring, Elias Zerhouni, the NIH director, agreed that "from a purely scientific point of view" it would be better if that number could be expanded. Research will be hampered, though not halted, by the administration's position.
Despite this change, Mr. Bush has not yet seen fit to revise the policy, and he has not given any indication he ever will. As a result, some scientists, at Harvard University and elsewhere, have begun an intensive search for private funding. In California, disease advocates and the biotech industry have joined forces to put an initiative on next week's ballot that would authorize a state with a huge budget deficit to spend some $3 billion on stem cell research. While it would make California a world center for this kind of science, the initiative would also put an enormous amount of public funding in the hands of a tiny group of industry and research university insiders, which would not be the case if the money came from the federal government.
Stem cells are still an unknown quantity: There is certainly no proof that more research on them will ever help people like Mr. Reeve to walk. Nevertheless, they offer hope to many sick people. Whoever is the next president will have to balance the promise of scientific advancement against the qualms of those who believe that embryos should not be used for research. Given that many embryos created in the process of in vitro fertilization already are slated for destruction, we believe the stronger arguments now lie with a more active federal program.