For the Record

Bush Okays Some Stem Cell Research Funding; Debate Continues

The time is now. Will you stand up for reproductive health and rights?

First published online:

After months of consultation and "agonizing," President Bush announced on August 9 that he will allow the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research but only in the most limited way. In so doing, despite his insistence to the contrary, he arrived at a truly political compromise. While largely successful, at least in the short-term, in appealing to the majority of Americans who say they are in favor of stem cell research going forward, the decision did not fully satisfy the most fervent partisans on the either sides of the stem cell debate. Researchers and patient advocacy groups, while generally praising the president for his thoughtfulness, contend that his decision will still impede significant scientific progress, while social conservatives as well as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have labeled the president's compromise "morally unacceptable."

The president declared that federal funds may be used to support research only on existing embryonic stem cell "lines." Cell lines (sometimes referred to as colonies) emanate from cells extracted from single, days-old embryos, which in turn reproduce themselves infinitely to create a line of cells with identical genetic material. The embryos themselves are created in private fertility clinics but are "excess" and would otherwise be discarded. The embryos are destroyed in the process of extracting the cells.

The president's claim that there are as many as 60 of these cell lines worldwide (as opposed to somewhere between a handful and 30) came as news to the leading U.S. scientists engaged in this research, however, and it remains a matter of dispute. The actual number—and the quality—of these lines is significant, since the promise stem cell research holds for possible treatment or cures for Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases or spinal cord injuries, for example, depends on their stability and genetic diversity.

Accordingly, while patient advocacy groups such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation were relieved that Bush is permitting the government to engage in the research at all, its president said he is "concerned whether this is sufficient to do the work that needs to be done." Harold Varmus, former head of the National Institutes of Health, went further in saying that it would be "a very poor investment federally, and a very cruel investment, if we ended up with knowledge of how to make differentiated cells to treat people and then we were stuck" without the necessary lines.

For their part, social conservatives are relieved that the president refused to permit the use of federal funds for the actual derivation of stem cells or even for research using those cells that may be extracted from "excess" embryos in the future. The president rationalized that subsidizing research only on existing cell lines is morally defensible since "the life and death decision [for those embryos] has already been made." The immediate reaction of the National Right to Life Committee—in sharp contrast to its usual allies such as the Family Research Council, for example—was to take a similarly pragmatic approach to this parsing of the debate by applauding the president for "prevent[ing] the federal government from becoming a party to any further killing of human embryos" (emphasis added).

When Congress reconvenes, this issue is almost certain to be reexamined as more information becomes available about the real implications of the president's position. While the president's Solomon-like decision seems to have softened the initial responses of most of the key stakeholders in this debate, it would seem that his announcement has marked only the beginning, not the end, of this larger debate about the true meaning of being "prolife."