As America struggles with such weighty issues as the war in Iraq,
the foundering economy and the run-up to a historic presidential
election, it may be difficult to recall that seven years ago this month
the most wrenching issue facing the nation was human embryonic stem cell research.
Scientists and patient advocates were clamoring for studies on the
cells, whose vast therapeutic potential was just coming to light, while
others were decrying the research as immoral because it necessitated
the destruction of days-old human embryos.
On Aug. 9, 2001, President Bush
devoted his first nationally televised address solely to this subject.
After months of introspection and deep discussions with experts in
bioethics, he said, he had decided on a policy that would allow
scientists "to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line."
That policy, still in effect, would allow federal funding of research on embryonic stem cells already created as of the date of his address, but not on cells derived thereafter.
Bush's approach stood in contrast to that of his predecessor, Bill
Clinton, whose plan was never implemented because it was completed in
the administration's final months. Under Clinton's proposal, the
decision of which cell colonies were eligible for study with federal
funds was based on whether the cells had been ethically derived -
whether the women who donated their discarded embryos for research did
so with a full understanding of what was to be done with their cells,
for example, and whether coercion or an expectation of better medical
care had influenced their decision.
Recent revelations that many of the Bush-approved stem cell colonies
were obtained in clear violation of widely recognized ethics rules have
now laid bare the moral hollowness of Bush's approach.
At least five of the 21 cell colonies approved for federal funding
by virtue of their having been derived before Bush's 2001 address came
from embryos that were "donated" by women who were either not told
anything about what they were agreeing to or were expressly told that
their cells would not be preserved as regenerating cell cultures.
Other colonies were obtained with lesser but still troubling ethics
lapses. Having learned of those failures of informed consent, at least
six of the nation's leading academic stem cell centers - four of them
in California - are now reconsidering whether to allow those cells in
their research protocols. An expert committee at Stanford University recently recommended banning these cells.
New rules being considered by the Proposition 71-created California Institute for Regenerative Medicine,
while useful in some ways, could paper over the problem by allowing
research on cells that otherwise do not pass ethics muster.
The question of how we got into this mess is worthy of a congressional probe. Insiders at the National Institutes of Health
have said they were under intense pressure from the White House to
ignore the ethics problems surrounding many of the Bush-approved cell
lines. The fear, apparently, was that if the number of cell lines
available for study with taxpayer dollars were to prove too small, then
scientists and patients would revolt against the policy.
In fact, it is a marvel that science and health experts have not
already revolted. Though Bush said in his 2001 address that there were
"more than 60" cell colonies that would be eligible for study with
federal funds under his plan, only 21 have turned out to be available.
Under the terms of the Stanford ethics review, that number shrinks to
Meanwhile, hundreds of new lines of embryonic stem cells have been
derived since 2001, using superior methods that enhance the cells'
biomedical potential - in compliance with strict ethics guidelines
crafted by the national academies.
It is time to move beyond the Bush era of stem cell research, with its faux moral high ground
and simplistic reliance on a TV broadcast date. There is nothing moral
about telling women that cells from their microscopic embryos, left
over from fertility treatments and already set to be discarded, cannot
be donated to researchers for the purpose of understanding diseases and
And there is nothing moral about forcing U.S. scientists to struggle
with old and degenerating cell lines while competitors overseas busily
file patents on potential therapies that take advantage of the latest
and best cells available.
Both presidential candidates have voted for legislation that would
loosen Bush's research restrictions while locking in, for the first
time, strong ethics rules for how embryonic stem cell research should be done - legislation that Bush vetoed twice.
Now, given the ethical cracks in the Bush policy, the candidates
need to stand behind that legislation. Whoever is elected should order
that ethically derived embryonic stem cells be made available for study
by America's publicly funded researchers, who for too long have been
hobbled in their desire to understand disease and reduce human suffering.
Rick Weiss and Jonathan Moreno are senior fellows at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org