The Philadelphia Inquirer
August 31, 2008
Stem Cell Research at a Crossroads
By Brooke Ellison
The month of August included an anniversary that was much less a cause for celebration than for somber reflection.
On Aug. 9, 2001, the new president of the United States, George W. Bush, issued an executive order outlining his administration's policy on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
The policy was restrictive, limiting federal funding to research
conducted on the 21 ultimately usable stem cell lines that already had
been derived before his announcement. Now, seven years later and
despite repeated legislative and public statements in opposition, this
restrictive policy has stood as a continual obstacle in the path to
In 2001, embryonic stem cell research was in its very formulary
stages, as researchers, just three years into their work, were only
beginning to unlock the potential and understand the complexity behind
these cells. In essence, President Bush's policy stunted this research
at a time when it most needed to be supported and explored.
Though the federal policy has remained the same, what has changed is the public support for stem cell research,
in all its forms; it has grown stronger, with nearly two out of three
people favoring it and more than 100 million potentially benefiting. A
change of policy is critical, and it needs to be made with a clear and
decisive statement, one that reemphasizes a national priority of
forward-thinking science and progress.
We have needed, and continue to need, strong leadership on this
issue - leadership that does not rely on partisanship or inaccuracies.
Such leadership implies a reinvestment in the benefits of research and
science, and a shift in thinking away from pure investigation and onto
treatment. Time has been wasted by a failure to provide the federal
backing and national coordination that a policy on embryonic stem cell research demands.
In the two major candidates seeking the presidency this November, there is the potential to remediate Bush's order. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama,
both of whom ostensibly have been supporters of relaxing the federal
restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, have the chance to be
detailed and straightforward in their proposals concerning embryonic
stem cell research.
Obama has stated his desire to move research forward,
emphasizing his plan to expand, through executive order, funding to
newly created stem cell lines only from IVF-fertilized eggs that are
cryopreserved and otherwise would be discarded.
Obama's proposal does not, and unfortunately cannot, circumvent
the obstacles to some of the most forerunning science that were
legislated in 1995 under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from creating embryos
for the purposes of research. This precludes such procedures as somatic cell nuclear transfer or parthenogenesis, which have been extremely valuable in understanding disease development and immune responses to potential therapies.
The Dickey-Wicker Amendment was celebrated by opponents of
abortion and has implicitly linked the issue of embryonic stem cell
research, unfairly politicizing an issue that ought to be less about
partisanship than about common concern.
What Obama's proposal does do, however, is offer a means to
help fill the gap that Bush's stagnant and impractical policy has
created. This would be an important first step to help advance stem
cell research in the United States, made in a bold statement that a
change of course is drastically needed.
McCain's position on federal funding for embryonic stem cell
research has proved more difficult to ascertain. During his tenure as a
U.S. senator, McCain repeatedly voted in favor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act,
which would have relaxed restrictions on funding for embryonic
research. McCain was even a signatory of a letter to Bush, urging him
to change his policy on the issue. However, McCain's focus has moved
from funding for embryonic stem cell research to adult stem cell
research, as he has asserted that embryonic research is "academic" and
could lead down a "slippery slope" in science. Both of these arguments
are inaccurate, unfair, and serve only to propagate the inflammatory
misinformation that has dominated this debate since its existence.
This marks a significant and disturbing break from McCain's
previous and repeated support for expansion of federal funding for an
embryonic stem cell research, a break that stands to become more
pronounced as time and the pressures of partisanship march on.
Pandering to the small, ultraconservative base of the Republican Party
- which he needs to do to win in November - McCain has taken a step in
the wrong direction in terms of necessary life sciences and research. How far and how codified this step will be remains to be seen.
Embryonic stem cell research was a topic in the recent forum at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., at which both presidential candidates
discussed those issues most on the minds of evangelical voters. That
embryonic stem cell research has almost exclusively been couched in
evangelical terms, connoting destruction of life rather than
perpetuation of life, is not only troubling, but allows important
policy to be dictated by divisiveness. This desperately needs to
change, and change can start with policy.
Embryonic stem cell research, and indeed stem cell research in
all its forms, holds the very hope that millions of people base their
lives on. We have an opportunity, and even responsibility, to make this
hope a reality, finding cures once unimaginable. There is no more time
to be wasted, and our hopes cannot be defined by ideology. This is an
issue about life, extending and improving life, and now there is a
chance to make it happen.
Brooke Ellison is on the ethics committee of the Empire State Stem Cell Board