Bush promised in January to review a Clinton administration rule that allowed federal funding for researchers experimenting on embryo cells from fertility clinics. The rule circumvented a 1995 congressional ban on using federal money for biomedical research on embryos outside the womb by allowing researchers to use stem cells extracted by a third party.
Under the rule, a third party could destroy the embryo by taking it apart and preserving the remaining living stem cells for research. Researchers value the cells for their ability to replicate quickly and turn into any kind of human tissue. The cells carry the potential to cure neurological diseases, diabetes, and many other illnesses. But many believe the destruction of a human embryo is the destruction of human life and should not be allowed for any reason.
Pressure on Bush
In Washington, opposing lobbying efforts pitted patient advocates and pharmaceutical and biotech companies against conservative religious organizations and prolife groups.
The Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, the National Right to Life Committee and the Catholic Alliance had all stepped up pressure on Bush, arguing that federal funding would condone the destruction of human lives in the name of medical research.
John and Lucinda Borden brought their sons Mark and Luke, whom they adopted as frozen embryos, before legislators.
"Which of my children would you kill?" John Borden asked. "Which one would you take?"
Carrie Gordon Earl, bioethics analyst for Focus on the Family, said, "This is about nonconsensual human experimentation."
"Is this where we want to venture as a people, to a place where we devour one another for spare parts?"
The prolife lobby also received help from Do No Harm, a coalition of researchers, bioethicists, and doctors who spearheaded a nationwide petition urging Bush to oppose destructive human embryonic stem-cell research.
Bush's announcement grieved patients' groups and many in the scientific and medical communities who believe embryonic stem-cell research could provide a cure for millions. These groups—including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation; Patients Coalition for Urgent Research; the Alliance for Aging Research (AAR); the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC); and private biotech firms—had lobbied hard for unrestricted federal funding. The groups argue that rather than waste embryos that will be destroyed along with their stem cells, researchers should use them to help save those whose lives are being cut short by disease. "This really is the best hope they have," says Tony Mazzaschi of the AAMC.
But others point out that the push for federal funding is being driven by more than altruism aimed at finding cures. A report published by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity (CPI) quoted a National Institutes of Health official who said that "the fledgling stem-cell industry would profit tremendously from federal funding that would cover embryonic stem-cell research."
Indeed, some observers believe the demand for stem cells is dangerously close to spawning a huge commercial industry around the sale of and experimentation on human embryos. Already, news that Advanced Cell Technology—a Massachusetts-based, privately held biotech company—and Virginia Medical School's Jones Institute had created or planned to create human embryos for the sole purpose of extracting their stem cells has troubled those on both sides of the debate. "Biotechnology companies specializing in stem-cell research stand to reap huge financial windfalls from successful therapies developed via this science," said the CPI report.
The CPI report also points out that some companies have teamed up with patients' rights groups to battle religious and prolife coalitions. "As a result, what was once a debate between science and religion has become, in part, a clash between profits and ethics."
The report notes that the AAR, which bills itself as the leading citizen advocacy organization for improving the health of older Americans, "also happens to receive funding from private-sector biotechnology companies that have a financial stake in the outcome of the stem-cell debate, including Geron," the for-profit corporation that isolated embryonic stem cells in 1998.
One of the most visible boosts for federal funding has come from conservative politicians who have prolife voting records: Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn.; Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.; Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore.; and Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah. Before Bush's announcement, Frist had unveiled a proposal that was widely believed to be a White House trial balloon for a possible compromise.
Like the White House announcement, the proposal recommended a limit on the number of stem-cell lines but did not specify how many. (Stem-cell lines are ongoing generations of stem cells dating back to a single embryo.) The proposal also suggested establishing strict new oversight guidelines and increasing federal funding for adult stem-cell research.
Bush said he would establish a presidential council—headed by the respected bioethicist Leon Kass—to oversee the research.
Meanwhile, many conservative groups are hailing Bush's decision as the right one, which they say is consistent with his campaign pledge. "He deserves praise from citizens who understand that it is never justified to destroy one life in order to possibly save another," said James C. Dobson, president of Focus on the Family.
As a candidate, Bush consistently opposed embryonic stem-cell research that required live human embryos to be discarded. In a May 18 letter to the Culture of Life Foundation, a d.c.-based educational foundation, Bush reaffirmed his stance: "I oppose federal funding for stem-cell research that involves destroying living human embryos."
Bush's decision is expected to jump-start efforts in Congress to expand the government's support of embryonic stem-cell research, which would override the President's approach. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., have both introduced legislation that would allow federally funded researchers to destroy human embryos to harvest their stem cells.
But Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., one of the Senate's most vocal opponents of embryonic stem-cell research, argues that no embryo should ever be the object of experiments. "This is a life we're talking about, not just some disposable piece of property," says Brownback, who compares the issue to China's harvesting of organs from condemned criminals. "The utilitarian argument is, 'Why not get some use out of them?'"
Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, gave Bush a mixed review. He commended Bush for barring federal funding of research linked to the destruction of embryos, but labeled as "troubling" the decision to permit research on existing stem-cell lines. "Mr. Bush attempts to put a redemptive gloss on previous bad acts and to distance himself from the immoral acts that resulted in the killing of embryonic human beings," he said.
"But by casting such research in a positive light, he will encourage members of Congress to advocate additional research which kills additional embryos."
C. Ben Mitchell, senior fellow of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, said he wished for a complete ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cells. "The President's compromise is disappointing but not entirely disheartening," Mitchell said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., has sponsored a bill that would increase funding for stem-cell research that does not require destroying a developing human at any stage. Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky., says he may introduce legislation that would close the Clinton loophole and ban federal dollars for embryonic stem-cell research. But such measures are unlikely to pass the Senate, where Hatch says his side already has the votes to overturn a presidential veto of legislation approving federal funding.
Drawing on Adult Stem Cells
Crucial to the debate is how scientifically valuable embryonic stem cells are considered. "Embryonic stem cells have not been used in one single patient," David Prentice, professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State University, told a congressional committee in July. He argued that embryonic stem cells' potential for cures is overrated.
But scientists and the medical community say this is because the research is still so new, and scientists do not yet have the resources for expensive testing. "Moving to the clinical arena will take time," Mazzaschi says.
After Clinton lifted a ban on testing fetal tissue, some Parkinson's patients developed catastrophic symptoms when cells from aborted fetuses were implanted into their brains. Because of such problems, Mazzaschi says, researchers will proceed with "a tremendous amount of caution here."
In the meantime, adult stem cells are proving more and more promising. Lewis cited the recent discovery of a special protein that makes adult stem cells behave like embryonic stem cells; the protein is being used to produce custom cancer vaccines.
In March Donald Orlic of the National Genome Research Institute told nbc News, "We are currently finding that these adult stem cells can function as well, perhaps even better than, embryonic stem cells." Lee Ducat, founder of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, has said that a breakthrough treatment (using insulin-producing, adult pancreas cells to treat diabetes) has caused her to be "the most optimistic I've been in 30 years."
For opponents of federal embryonic stem-cell research, such news is proof that ethical alternatives are available.
"God has provided us a good out here if we want it," Brownback says. "Will we take it, or will we rush to spill blood?"
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also appearing today on our site: "House Backs Human Cloning Ban"
The National Insitutes of Health offers a Primer on Stem Cells.
Read the full transcript of Bush's decision announcement, or watch the video. Media coverage of Bush's speech included The Washington Post and The New York Times. Time examined how Bush reached his decision.
Christianity Today's editorial response to the decision argued that Bush helped pull society back up the slippery slope of bioethics that Clinton set it on.
A CNN-USA Today-Gallup found that 60 percent of Americans approved of the president's decision.
The New York Times, the BBC, and Reuters found that Bush's decision seemed to fall right in the middle of the debate with advocates on both sides finding something to like and hate. Weblog found that to be true in its own opinion roundup of the story.
Opinion pages had ready-made fodder for a while after the decision. A few of the editorials on Bush's decision included those by: Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Orlando Sentinel, The Christian Science Monitor, San Diego Union-Tribune, USA Today, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Washington Post.
The stem -cell debate has re-ignited questions over the exact moment when life begins.
As part of the decision, Bush is creating a president's council of leading scientists, doctors, ethicists, lawyers, and theologians. Dr. Leon Kass, a biomedical ethicist from the University of Chicago, will lead the council.
The issue moves to Congress in September.
Not a week after the decision, Reuters reported on progress in the study of adult stem cells.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of bioethics includes:
House of Lords Legalizes Human Embryo Cloning | Religious leaders' protests go unheeded by lawmakers. (Feb. 2, 2001)
Britain Debates Cloning of Human Embryos | Scientists want steady stream of stem cells for "therapeutic" purposes. (Nov. 22, 2000)
Tissue of Lies? | Latest stem-cell research shows no urgent need to destroy human embryos for the cause of science. (Sept. 28, 2000)
Beyond the Impasse to What? | Stem-cell research may not need human embryos after all. But why are we researching in the first place? (Aug. 18, 2000)
Thus Spoke Superman | Troubling language frames the stem-cell debate. (June 13, 2000)
New Stem-Cell Research Guidelines Criticized | NIH guidelines skirt ethical issues about embryo destruction, charge bioethicists. (Feb. 7, 2000)
Human Embryo Research Resisted (August 9, 1999)
Editorial: The Biotech Temptation (July 12, 1999)
Embryo Research Contested (May 24, 1999)
Stop Cloning Around (April 27, 1997)
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