Politics & Policy

Cutting The Cord

Congress takes up a rich alternative to the usual stem-cell focus.

The stem-cell debate is a lot less black-and-white than it is routinely sold. A bill expected to be voted on in the House of Representatives on Tuesday should make this reality clearer than ever.

Most media attention has been on the other stem-cell-research bill in the House, co-sponsored by Republican Mike Castle (Del.), which would ease federal restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research–which President George W. Bush has promised to veto.

The other bill, which has gotten less coverage, is the one members should be rallying behind instead–and easily can. The Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005” would establish a national umbilical-cord bank.

In umbilical cords lies one of the alternatives to embryonic-stem-cell research, also stem-cell research, that can garner more universal support from those who want science to find treatments and cures to a panoply of disease. Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) has called cord-blood a ” best kept medical secret.” It pretty much is. Consider this list of some 57 diseases that have been treated with stem cells extracted from umbilical cords. Cord blood is rich in stem cells–which you don’t have to destroy an embryo to obtain. (We don’t hear enough about these kinda stories.)

Much of the debate about stem-cell research is cluttered with propaganda about potential panaceas stemming from research on embryos. With cord-blood research there is not only a potential, but a here-and-now workable medical reality, pregnant with added potential, too.

That other stem-cell bill up this week–the one the president will veto–carries with it obvious and serious ethical problems. For those who believe an embryo is a human life, the easing of restrictions would allow the federal government to fund the destruction of life, in the form of “surplus” frozen embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures.

That’s a no-go morally for many–and certainly, if you do believe an embryo is a human life, it is a dangerous place for the federal government to be.

And with the existence of embryo adoption, the assumption that the trash is the only option for these embryos is a false one. Folks can debate the merits and ethics of that, too–and should–but the point is that it is not a given that these embryos are going to be thrown away.

Umbilical cords do, in fact, head to medical-waste bins when they are not saved for future use. Why not save them? No destruction involved.

The public-policy and media talk in recent days, as is typically the case, has focused on a black-and-white contention that those who hope for cures, those who seek to help the sick, would support easing restrictions on prospective embryonic-stem-cell research. But how about focusing a bit more on this cord-blood alternative everyone can agree on–and where real progress can be made, ASAP? Some “Pro-life” congressmen find themselves on the fence as to what to do about the Castle bill, some worried about what their constituents will think: How can I be against Michael J. Fox? is the general attitude, because of the current (not adult) tone of the national conversation over stem-cell research. But you can support stem-cell research without supporting–and getting the federal government to fund–life-destroying research. Just look to the Smith bill.

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