Implications of the Stem Cell Veto on Science in the US

Sep 01, 2006

President George W. Bush's recent veto of the bill to expand federal support for embryonic stem cell research will probably not have any long-term devastating effects on the future treatment of Parkinson disease (PD) or Alzheimer disease (AD).

President George W. Bush's recent veto of the bill to expand federal support for embryonic stem cell research will probably not have any long-term devastating effects on the future treatment of Parkinson disease (PD) or Alzheimer disease (AD). Through the intercession of private industry, the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research for prevention and cures for neurodegenerative diseases and the economic advantages that will go with such achievements will override the current obstacles posed by politicians, ethicists, and moralists.

The complex issues surrounding funding of stem cell research have forced political candidates-on the brink of mid-term elections-to take a stand in a debate interlaced with religious zealotry and moral indignation on the one hand and scientific outrage and bitter concern on the other. Republican senators were forced to make an uncomfortable decision and were caught on the horns of a political dilemma: Although they were required to heed social conservatives who believe that embryonic stem cell research is unethical, they could not deny the appeals of researchers, medical specialists, and those patients and caregivers who are living with debilitating diseases.

Funding for stem cell research is not merely an issue of scientific progress in opposition to moral indignation but an overwhelmingly political issue. The Senate vote can potentially affect many an incumbent's career in this coming November's elections. A report in the Los Angeles Times1 brought to light how this is playing out, noting that the Republican senator from Missouri Jim Talent-described as a woefully endangered incumbent seeking reelection-acquiesced to religiously conservative activists by opposing a ballot initiative that supported stem cell research. With different fish to fry, the Democratic governor of Wisconsin, James Doyle, backed the bill. Doing so may boost his chances for reelection. Passage of the bill would have translated into a windfall for his state's burgeoning biotechnology industry.

Other supporters of the bill included Republican House Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, a former cardiac surgeon now with presidential aspirations. Rendering more stem cell research eligible for federal aid, the House of Representatives approved the bill last year. The House passage would allow federally funded scientists to experiment on embryonic stem cells created at any time with the proviso that these cells always would be derived from fertility clinics, where fertilized but unused embryos would have otherwise been destroyed.

Also in favor of funding was Arlen Specter, a prominent Republican senator from Pennsylvania and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. BBC News2 quoted him saying, "a century from now, people will look back in wonderment at how there could be any doubt about using stem cells to save lives and save [sic] human suffering." Countering Specter's view, Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, echoed the Administration's official stance that "the government should not be in the business of funding ethically troubling research with taxpayer dollars."2

Included among celebrities who have advocated for broader government funding of stem cell research were Nancy Reagan, widow of the former president who died of complications of AD; the late Dana Reeve, wife of the former Superman portrayer who died of complications related to spinal cord injuries; Michael J. Fox, the actor challenged by PD; and Mary Tyler Moore, who has type 1 diabetes mellitus. Public awareness about stem cell research has come more through the advocacy of these celebrities than through medical experts or other educators.

PASSAGE IN SPITE OF EXPECTED VETO

On July 19, the Senate passed the controversial bill by a vote of 63 to 37. However, it was known to all that the president intended to veto the bill on the grounds that passing it would approve the use of public funds for research that required the destruction of human embryos. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow publicly announced the rationale behind the Bush veto: "The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research it's inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder. He's one of them."

With the fallout, however-including an estimated 70% of the US population in favor of stem cell research3 and what was described as a trying interview for White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton on NBC's Meet the Press4-Snow found himself apologizing days later for his choice of words-or one word, in particular: "murder." "[The President] would not use that term," Snow said, although he reiterated the Administration's stance that federal funding should not be used for research that involves destruction of potential human life.4

Bush had promised to use his veto power for the first time to block the bill's becoming law. Although the Senate passed the bill by a safe margin, it did not achieve the 67 votes necessary to override a presidential veto.

American politicians in opposition to funding are not alone in the world, though. The European Union (EU) has its detractors as well. Eight countries within the Union-Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Malta, Luxembourg, Austria, and Lithuania-have tried to halt continued EU funding for stem cell research confined only to embryos discarded from fertility clinics.5

At the end of a heated debate at EU headquarters in Brussels, Germany ultimately dropped its objections to further funding. The German retreat was the result of assurances received from the European Commission that no EU funds would be spent on the destruction of human embryos-funds from elsewhere would have to be used.6

SCIENTISTS SPEECHLESS?

Although the medical research community is protesting the turn of events, no State-side scientist of international stature has come forward to make waves. One reason might be concerns over retributive Administration cancellations of NIH funding for research. Some researchers might be taking a watch-and-wait strategy. On the other hand, Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, has taken a stand that was documented in the Guardian Unlimited.5

Hawking, in whom motor neuron disease was diagnosed at age 21 years, urged the EU not to follow the "reactionary lead" of the US Administration. He went on to say that "stem cell research is the key to developing cures for degenerative conditions like Parkinson's and motor neuron disease, from which I and many others suffer. The fact that the cells come from embryos is not an objection, because the embryos are going to die anyway."5

If the scientific atmosphere in the United States remains compromised, an option for American researchers would be to emigrate to places where their work would be better supported. The Science Minister of the United Kingdom, Lord David Sainsbury of Turville, commented in the Guardian Unlimited6 that "there are a group of American scientists who are very disillusioned. In this field [of embryonic stem cell research], we have seen US scientists coming to the UK. If the US continues to take this very negative position, I think [that] within this field of regenerative medicine, we will see scientists from America-and from other parts of the world who would have gone to America-come to the UK instead."

Sainsbury went on to say that "in Europe, we are moving forward on this front, whereas America has taken-as far as the federal government is concerned-a very negative position. That Europe is moving forward is extremely good."

REFERENCES

1. Hook J. GOP fissure on stem cell vote likely. Los Angeles Times. July 17, 2006. Available at: www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-stemcell17jul17,1,3823279.story?coll=la-headlines-nation. Accessed August 1, 2006.

2. Westhead J. Stem cell vote set to draw Bush veto. BBC News. July 18, 2006. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/5188528.stm. Accessed August 1, 2006.

3. Kellman L. Senate approves embryo stem cell bill. AP Newswire. July 18, 2006. Available at: http://apnews.myway.com/article/20060719/D8IUQCLO0.html. Accessed August 9, 2006.

4. Snow apologizes for stem cell comment. AP Newswire. July 24, 2006. Available at: http://apnews.myway.com/article/20060724/D8J2GPF80.html. Accessed August 9, 2006.

5. Andalo D. Hawking urges EU not to stop stem cell funding. Guardian Unlimited. July 24, 2006. Available at: www.guardian.co.uk/eu/story/0,,1827874,00.html?gusrc=rss. Accessed August 1, 2006.

6. Watt N. US faces science brain drain after Europe backs stem funding. Guardian Unlimited. July 35, 2006. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/genes/article/0,,1828069,00.html. Accessed August 1, 2006.

CHARLES J. IPPOLITO, MD, is a freelance medical science writer in New York City.

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