Jewish World Review August 12, 2004 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5764

Collin Levey

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Getting to the root of the stem-cell debate | Somebody get some smelling salts to revive the drug industry. We imagine it's feeling a bit lightheaded at the presidential campaign's reversals of traditional positions on research. We're talking, of course, about stem cells, that nascent area of medical discovery that has become a major political battleground.

Since the younger Ron Reagan asked the Democratic National Convention to "cast your vote for stem-cell research," the Kerry campaign has grabbed up the issue as a good bet for wooing swing voters. The judgment has caused the candidate to thunder that we must "tear down every wall that keeps us from finding the cures of tomorrow" while running mate John Edwards says the Bush administration has "put restrictions in place that dramatically undermine our efforts to find cures for diseases."

Yes indeed, this is the same Democratic ticket that has promised to punish the "price gouging" drug industry by reimporting American drugs from Canada to avoid paying U.S. prices. That "gouging" is of course what pays for most of the industry's own innovative research and development into new cures every year. But we digress.

Embryonic stem cells have captured the public imagination because they seem like a post-modern fountain of youth: Like cellular superheros, they are able to change form into any organ they are directed toward. Their medical applications at this point are nil, but their potential is touted as infinite, conjuring images of people growing stronger hearts or regenerating their aging brains.

It's heady stuff, so let's review a few facts as we wade into the politics. The Kerry campaign has said President Bush has put a "ban" on the research. In fact, there is a ban on new embryonic stem-cell research about as much as there is a ban on buttermilk pancakes. Which is to say, you can have them, but not on the federal dime.

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The primary source of the controversial stem cells is from excess zygotes created in fertility treatments which are typically discarded. In 2001, the Bush administration limited the federal funding of stem-cell research to some 78 pre-existing stem-cell "lines" from these sources. Of those "lines," some smaller fraction of them has been useful. The administration's decision to fund some embryonic research and not others is medically arbitrary, yes, but it does not remotely resemble a "ban."

Uncoincidentally, this is the same policy compromise that has been struck with abortion: There is no prohibition, but neither is there federal funding. (Stem cells are indeed this year's proxy for the abortion debate — one John Kerry would prefer to avoid head-on). Also in similar fashion to abortion, private groups have proved adept at raising the money to support new stem-cell research.

The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation is one such powerhouse of fund raising and lobbying. Recently, the group helped fund a group of Harvard researchers in creating a new batch of stem cells. Meanwhile, as of 2003, according to a stem-cell trade publication, some 61 U.S. and international companies were involved in stem-cell research — not quite the dark rain cloud Democrats say hangs over the industry.

As it currently stands, universities, which often get public money, continue to focus more heavily on less-controversial adult stem-cell research while private corporations, unimpeded by the federal funding issue, are now the ones doing more of the embryonic research. Universities such as Johns Hopkins have also continued embryonic research with private funding.

Now, the Bush administration isn't immune to criticism here — it has spent too much time downplaying, as Laura Bush did this week, the potential cures that could come from the research when few scientists, let alone politicians, have much reason to know at this point. The avenue of research, at least with embryonic stem cells, is still exceedingly young and adult stem-cell research is only now beginning to bear fruit.

But stem-cell research isn't really in jeopardy in any case. Federal funding has support among a number of Republicans in Congress, including quite a few pro-lifers. No less an abortion opponent than Orrin Hatch has suggested that the Senate has enough votes to override any veto the president would use to quash legislation supporting the research. Bush probably knows this as much as he knew his gay-marriage amendment would fail; he also knows the base loves it.

In the meantime, states have stepped into the fray. New Jersey has provided funding for institutions conducting the research and California has aimed to put a stem-cell initiative on the ballot that would send around $300 million a year to universities and biotech companies. Surprise, some 85 percent of people in California have a family member with one of five conditions commonly seen as potential beneficiaries of the therapy.

Scientific discoveries have a habit of moving faster than our bureaucratic institutions and faster even than our ability to sift through the moral or ethical dilemmas they pose. This has been as true in the discoveries of atom-splitting as it has been in cloning and stem-cell research.

It is, in this column's view, better to err on the side of research and discovery. But the debate itself is worth having. We do not need to leave questions of morality and ethics only to our scientists and we need not trust the downplaying of the potential cures to those who speak for ethical issues. We can trust the public to decide where to find the balance.

JWR contributor Collin Levey is a weekly op-ed columnist at the Seattle Times. Before joining the Times in September 2003, she was an editorial writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal. Comment by clicking here.

08/05/04: This band of brothers has a different view of Kerry
07/30/04: Putting a lid on the loose lips of Teresa Heinz Kerry
07/08/04: Presidential contest is shaping up as a battle of professional archetypes
06/25/04: Could Nader help the Dems?
06/17/04: Odd man out: Al Gore's journey into irrelevance
06/10/04: A chance to settle down and see where we are

© 2004, Collin Levey