Christian scientists and conservative groups today were "severely disappointed" after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced this morning his support for a bill providing increased funding for embryonic stem-cell research. In a speech before the Senate, the majority leader said, "I believe today—as I believed and stated in 2001, prior to the establishment of current policy—that the federal government should fund embryonic stem-cell research."

"We're very disappointed on this," said Carrie Gordon Earll, senior bioethics policy analyst for Focus on the Family, "primarily because his statement distorts the pro-life position."

Frist told the Senate. "I am pro-life. I believe human life begins at conception. … An embryo is nascent human life." However, Frist also said, "We should federally fund research only on embryonic stem cells derived from blastocysts [a 4-day-old human embryo] leftover from fertility therapy, which will not be implanted or adopted but instead are otherwise destined by the parents with absolute certainty to be discarded and destroyed."

"I don't know how to combine those two statements," said Bob Scheidt, chairman of the ethics commission for the Christian Medical and Dental Association. "We're shocked, because we as Christian physicians thought Frist was one of us.

"We feel this is terrible mistake," Scheidt said. "In our opinion, it is doing evil that good may come."

Empty promises

Frist, like other supporters of stem-cell research, says the cells have a unique potential to cure a host of currently incurable diseases, such as juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's disease. "Unlike other stem cells, embryonic stem cells are 'pluripotent,'" Frist said. "That means they have the capacity to become any type of tissue in the human body. Moreover, they are capable of renewing themselves and replicating themselves over and over again—indefinitely."

However, some Christian scientists disagree with the facts Frist presented. "There is research that some adult stem cells hold the same pluripotent capacity that embryonic do. He did not give an accurate read of the science," said Earll.

Some scientists also question whether embryonic stem cells have as much potential as supporters claim. "I worked for 20 years as professor at Indiana State University, been involved in this debate, even did some adult stem-cell research," says David Prentice, senior fellow for life science at the Family Research Council and adjunct professor at Georgetown Medical School. "The science is not really there for the embryonic stem cells," he says. "They've been working with mouse embryonic stem cells for over 20 years, but still have not a single treatment for humans and pretty poor results in mice."

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Stem cells derived from adults and umbilical cord blood have already produced results, Prentice says. "We have thousands of patients successfully treated with adult and cord blood stem cells, including more than 200 heart patients, which Senator Frist might take notice of as a heart surgeon. If we really cared about patients, we'd be focusing our efforts and our federal taxpayer dollars on the adult stem cells and the cord blood."

At least 10 published papers have shown that adult stem cells are able to make virtually any tissue, Prentice says. "Just yesterday a group at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that they could turn adult stem cells from bone marrow into eggs in the ovary, an amazing announcement. It's showing that where the science is favors the adult stem cells."

"It's ludicrous to ask taxpayers to fund a science that is unethical and unproductive," says Lanier Swann, director of government relations at Concerned Women for America. Still, the hype surrounds embryonic stem cells. "I'm not exactly sure why they continue to push for that type of research when they're finding treatments [through adult stem cells]," she says.

'The cow is already out of the barn'

"In this country, it's sort of the Wild West in the reproductive industry," says Prentice. Other countries "limit the number of embryos that are created to just the ones that are going to be implanted, so that you don't stockpile human embryos in the freezer," he says.

Frist wants to use the 400,000 estimated frozen embryos that have been created for in vitro fertility treatments and allow parents to donate the embryos for research. "There are other options besides just leaving these embryos in a freezer," says Prentice.

"Frist is denying an alternative fate to these frozen embryos" such as the Snowflake embryo adoption program, Scheidt says.

"If there are embryos that have been created that are not being used," Earll says, "they need to either be implanted by their genetic mother or they need to be allowed to be adopted. This is a direct result of the irresponsible use of [reproductive] technology. The cow is out of the barn, and now we're chasing the cow."

When Bush announced his stem-cell policy in 2001, he allowed federal funding for research on dozens of embryonic stem-cell lines that had already been created. But many of those lines have yet to be used in research. "National Institutes of Health has said that they've got 3,500 vials waiting to be shipped to researchers who want to do experiments," says Prentice. "Of the approved lines, some of them didn't turn out, but there are still 39 of the original approved lines that are in the freezer, and never yet been thawed for experiments."

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There are also possibilities for developing embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. Frist said he supported research on these methods as a more ethical means of researching on embryonic stem cells. "With more federal support and emphasis, these newer methods, though still preliminary today, may offer huge scientific and clinical pay-offs," he told the Senate. "And just as important, they may bridge moral and ethical differences among people who now hold very different views on stem cell research because they totally avoid destruction of any human embryos."

But Prentice is not impressed with Frist's effort to bridging ethical differences. "If you wanted to hold to the ethical line, then you'd investigate these methods," he says. But there's no need to create more embryonic stem-cell lines for research, he says. "You could still use the approved lines that the President has approved funding for and let the science show where the real promise is."

Bush expected to veto

With Frist's backing, the Stem-Cell Research Enhancement Act, which in May passed the House, will come to a debate in the Senate after it returns from an August recess, according to a Frist aide. Frist said he wants to add oversight requirements and ethical restrictions to the bill, and his support could swing other senators to support the bill.

But if it passes, the President has promised to veto any bill that loosens restrictions to federally funding stem-cell research.

Conservative political groups are hoping he keeps his promise. "The President has been very firm in stating he would never support something that harms human life, and we would expect him to keep those commitments," says Swann.

"We absolutely expect a veto here," says Earll.

Related Elsewhere:

More on stem cells is available on our Life Ethics page.