Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) yesterday offered the most detailed description yet of how a Kerry administration would support the promising young field of embryonic stem cell research, while 780 miles away first lady Laura Bush defended on ethical grounds her husband's more restrictive research policy.
The dueling comments came on the third anniversary of President Bush's televised address to the nation announcing a funding policy for the controversial research, which relies on human embryos as a source of cells.
The much-debated but still experimental field of study has become an unanticipated wedge issue in this fall's election, one of few such issues available to the candidates as they vie for this year's small slice of undecided voters. Edwards's running mate on the Democratic ticket, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), mentioned the topic in most speeches he gave during a whistle-stop train tour across the Midwest and Southwest last week. And he devoted a large chunk of the Democrats' weekly radio address Saturday to it, saying that science should not be sacrificed for ideology.
"We're going to lift the ban on stem cell research," Kerry said. "We're going to listen to our scientists and stand up for science. We're going to say yes to knowledge, yes to discovery and yes to a new era of hope for all Americans."
In Langhorne, Pa., Laura Bush suggested that research supporters had exaggerated the cells' potential while underrating the moral implications of the work.
"I hope that stem cell research will yield cures," she told the Pennsylvania Medical Society. But "we don't even know that stem cell research will provide cures for anything -- much less that it's very close" to providing such cures, she added.
In a conference call with reporters from Chicago yesterday, Edwards called Aug. 9 "a sad anniversary." It was on that date in 2001 that Bush announced his "ban" on federal funding for the research, the Democratic vice presidential nominee said.
In fact, Bush agreed on that date to allow, for the first time, the use of federal funds for studies of human embryonic stem cells, which reside inside five-day-old embryos and have the biological potential to turn into every kind of replacement tissue a body could need. But he limited support to research on colonies from embryos already destroyed by that date.
That compromise ensured that federal money would not be used to destroy human embryos -- a limit demanded by the social and religious conservatives who comprise Bush's base of support. But in doing so, the policy also kept scientists from using federal grants to study any of the newer and in many cases more promising colonies of embryonic stem cells that have been cultivated in recent years.
The system of "strict ethical regulations" described by Edwards closely resembles the framework that the Clinton administration devised in its final two years but never put into effect.
Scientists would be able to use federal funds to isolate and study stem cells from fertility clinic embryos no longer wanted by parents -- embryos, Edwards said, "that would otherwise be discarded or frozen indefinitely." Consent would be required of the parents. And proposed experiments would have to pass muster with an ethics committee at the academic or research institution where the work would be done.
Edwards also reiterated the Democratic ticket's support for "therapeutic" cloning, which involves the creation of cloned human embryos as a source of stem cells. He rejected the notion that embryo cloning was synonymous with human cloning, which he said he and Kerry oppose. Edwards promised an increase in funding for embryonic stem cell research to at least four times the $25 million spent by the federal government in fiscal 2003.
"To not do all we can for our loved ones would be a tragedy," Edwards said. "Our loved ones are waiting, and we're losing time."
At least 128 new self-replenishing colonies of human embryonic stem cells have been created since Aug. 9, 2001, according to Harvard Medical School stem cell researcher George Q. Daley. Among them are 17 colonies grown at Harvard with private funds -- colonies that are said to be more easily maintained than the Bush-approved cells; nearly 50 new colonies grown in Chicago, including 10 bearing the genetic signatures of diseases that scientists want to study; and several new colonies created in Singapore that, in contrast to all 21 Bush-approved colonies, have never been contaminated with mouse tumor cells. They help keep the cells alive but might transmit viruses that could make a patient sicker.
Fitzgerald reported from Chicago.