New Allies for Cell Research
Couples having trouble conceiving a child may wonder whether their insurancecovers infertility treatments. They don't wonder whether they have a rightto treatment at all, even though some treatments produce extra humanembryos, more than 400,000 of which lie in frozen storage. Most are likelybe discarded. Opponents of putting those embryos, the width of a human hair,to scientific use call it murder. But protesters don't wait in the streetsnear fertility labs as they do near abortion clinics.
This sort of ethical schizophrenia is one force behind gathering demandsthat the government support research on the many possible medical uses ofembryonic stem cells. The most promising research paths concern Parkinson'sdisease, Alzheimer's, muscular dystrophy, diabetes and cystic fibrosis.Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, long a quiet supporter of stem cellresearch, has gone public. She movingly describes the loss of her husband toAlzheimer's, even as his body still lives.
A bipartisan congressional delegation will meet with key Bush administrationadvisors today in hope of persuading the president to ease a ban on federalfunding for research on embryonic stem cells. By studying how these mastercells differentiate into muscle, brain and other specialized human tissues,researchers may learn how to grow cells that will treat diseases.
President Bush's decision nearly three years ago was to let federally fundedresearchers study 64 embryonic stem cell lines created before his August2001 cutoff date. A few were added later, but most of the approved lines areeither unavailable or contaminated with mouse "feeder cells." Researchersstudying whether adult stem cells can be used instead are concluding thatadult cells are not nearly as plentiful or biologically powerful as oncehoped.
Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a doctor and strong opponent of embryo research,recently said, "Let the private sector fund it, because taxpayers shouldn'thave to pay for what many think is unethical." Along with curtailingresearch, that road could be reckless. It would not curb the "anything goes"competitive urges of private research and would focus effort only on thebiggest potential moneymakers.
The publicly financed research that congressional supporters propose wouldprovide rules and monitoring. Funding would be limited to embryos fromfertility clinics. Donors would have to offer informed consent and could notbe paid.In recent months, even some of Bush's closest anti-abortion allies,including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), have pushed for apolicy change. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego) said last week:"I'm pro-life. Been pro-life for 14 years. But this is an area in which wecan save lives." Not only that, but keep key researchers and projects in theUnited States.
The moral decision is between putting these few-celled embryos in the trashand using them to possibly bring back lost memory, keep people out ofwheelchairs or free them from a lifetime of insulin injections. It is not asimple decision, but it is also not a close call.