Column: Stem cell politics

By Elie Dvorin

As medical science scrambles to catch up with the plethora of diseases afflicting millions worldwide, no single political issue will become more important and contentious than embryonic stem-cell research. In May, the House passed a measure that would repeal federal funding restrictions on embryos slated to be destroyed by fertility clinics. As part of the bill, embryo donors must provide written consent and cannot be paid for their contributions. Surprisingly, this bill passed the House with the support of 50 Republicans, signaling a strong shift in the traditional GOP opposition to stem-cell research.

The Senate also looks to be in position to pass a similar measure after the summer recess with pockets of GOP support. Nonetheless, Bush has, for the first time in his presidency, threatened to veto any bill that would repeal the 2001 standards that he set for federal funding of stem-cell research, potentially creating a standoff between Congress and the White House. If Bush does veto the bill, it is unlikely that either the House or Senate will have enough votes to override the veto.

As per the 2001 standard, federal money can only be used to finance research on 64 existing stem cell lines in the world “where the life and death decision has already been made. “However, it is unclear how many of these lines are actually viable for research purposes. Most of these stem cell lines are owned by foreign labs or private companies.

The position that Bush and the religious right hold on this issue, although genuine and well-intentioned, is misguided. Even as a person who is strongly pro-life and opposed to abortion, I diverge from the Republican Party platform on the stem-cell issue. Although not a scientist, I find myself intrigued by the fact that so much can potentially be gained from this new research, which may hold the cures for diseases like cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and many others.

It may seem contradictory to advocate a pro-life position and still support embryonic stem-cell research, but it depends whether or not one believes life begins in the womb or in a Petri dish. As a pro-lifer, I believe in public policy that saves lives – sometimes that means keeping babies from the slaughter of abortion and sometimes it means keeping life-threatening diseases away from the general population. Even if one is unsure about the status of life in the beginning, a strong utilitarian argument can be made for the research. The number of people that will likely be saved by using stem cells will far outweigh the number of embryos destroyed in the process.

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The stem cell debate took a major turn July 29, when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart surgeon by trade, took everybody by surprise by announcing his support for stem-cell research, a position he strongly opposed in years past. It may have been a politically calculated move to the center as he prepares for a presidential run in 2008, but whatever the reason, the impact of his statement will be felt in the Senate. As majority leader and a doctor, his support for stem-cell research will provide political cover for those GOP Senators who are either undecided about the issue or weary of alienating their conservative base. Even though Frist is only one vote, the number of GOP votes he will pull in will pave the way for passage in the Senate. Further bolstering the likelihood the measure will succeed, Republican Senators Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch, the former and current chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, respectively, support stem-cell research.

It may be the case that adult stem cell lines or those from umbilical cords yield better results than those derived from embryos. It may be the case that embryonic stem cells don’t provide us with the answers we’re looking for. Nonetheless, as a society concerned with eradicating life-threatening diseases and protecting life, we owe it to ourselves to equip the medical and scientific communities with the tools they need to find the answers. This means making sure our politicians cannot stifle serious medical research.

Elie Dvorin is a senior in LAS. His columns appear every Monday. He can be reached at [email protected].