In January, the House of Representatives passed a bill to overturn President Bush’s embryonic-stem-cell funding policy. Sponsored by Democrat Diana DeGette of Colorado and Republican Mike Castle of Delaware, the bill was exactly identical to one passed by Congress and vetoed by the president last July. And this time, too, the House was nowhere near the margin needed to overturn another presidential veto.
The Senate will act on the measure in the coming days, but the bill’s Senate sponsors have added a wrinkle to what had seemed like an instant replay of last year’s debate. They have inserted language funding the development of new techniques to derive cells like those obtained through the destruction of embryos, but without requiring such destruction. These emerging techniques — like the reprogramming of adult cells to function like embryonic stem cells, or the derivation of stem cells from amniotic fluid — have been the big stem-cell story of the past few years, and offer hope that researchers may be able to explore the potential of so-called “pluripotent” cells without ethical violations.
The language added to the Senate bill was taken verbatim from another bill the Congress considered last year. That measure, cosponsored by Senator Arlen Specter and then-Senator Rick Santorum, passed the Senate unanimously in July, but was then killed by House Democrats and about a dozen Republicans, who saw it as a threat to the embryo-research agenda. These opponents claimed the Specter-Santorum bill was deceptive, unethical, and a waste of time. All of these claims proved unfounded, but they were enough to kill the bill, and so to prevent an infusion of support to scientific techniques that might provide a way around the ethical dilemmas of embryonic-stem-cell research.
Since then, the new ethical alternatives have shown more progress and promise. In January, just days before the House voted, a team from Wake Forest University published a study showing that cells collected from amniotic fluid possessed key pluripotent qualities and could be transformed into a wide variety of cell types — indeed, every type the researchers tried.
Then just last month Ian Wilmut, the British scientist whose lab cloned Dolly the sheep, offered another sign that the new alternative techniques may just provide a way forward. Asked to compare the potential of human cloning with that of reprogramming techniques that might achieve the same end without harming embryos, Wilmut told a reporter “if I had to bet money, I would probably bet on reprogramming.”
All of this has caused senators to revise the House bill and include support for ethical alternatives. But given that revision, the Senate bill now contains a contradiction that its sponsors will need to learn from for next time. It acknowledges the value of exploring means of deriving pluripotent stem cells without destroying embryos, and so acknowledges also the problem inherent in such destruction. But if they now recognize that problem, and the value of advancing scientific techniques that allow us to avert it, the sponsors of the Senate bill need to rethink the rest of their measure.
Given the possibility of alternatives, and given the very preliminary state of embryonic-stem-cell research today; and given the support it already receives within ethical bounds through the Bush policy (more than $130 million since 2001); and given the recognition inherent in this revised bill of the problem with violating those moral bounds; what is the case for the part of the bill that commits exactly that violation? What is the case for overturning the Bush policy and compelling taxpayers to encourage the destruction of embryos just at the moment when ethical alternatives may be emerging?
That case used to involve a whole series of arguments — from complaints of a “ban” on the research, to absurd exaggerations of its potential, to the idea that Americans had fallen behind other countries, and on and on — that have fallen apart one by one.
So what remains? What remained in the last iteration of the stem-cell debate was fervent rejection of the possibility of effective and ethical alternative sources of cells. That, too, is now falling away, as the language of the Senate bill makes crystal clear. And all it leaves behind is a political crusade that contradicts not only the facts but now also itself.
The Senate sponsors of the bill probably hoped their revision would gain them new supporters. But the bill still directs public dollars to encourage human-embryo destruction, and so still crosses the ethical line that opponents deem critical, and that President Bush has vowed to protect with his veto pen. On the basic ethical question that has defined the stem-cell debate, it still takes the wrong side — insisting on setting science and ethics in conflict even as it recognizes ways of avoiding precisely that conflict.
Such blatant self-contradiction is not the solution to the stem-cell debate, but perhaps in this case it could begin to point the way. The solution would be a bill that contains only the second half of what the revised Senate bill now contains: only support for alternative new ethical ways of deriving embryonic-like cells, and not public funding to encourage the destruction of embryos. Senators Coleman and Isakson have proposed just such a bill, and President Bush has said he would sign it. But it remains to be seen if the Democratic Congress — especially the House — will take that yes for an answer.