Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Stem Cell Veto

Michelle Kirtley


July 21, 2006

For those who follow the stem cell debate, this was an action-packed week. In addition to the presidential veto of H.R. 810, which would have expanded federal funding for the development of new embryonic stem cell lines from currently frozen IVF embryos, Congress attempted to send two other bills to President Bush, both of which passed the Senate unanimously. S. 2754, The Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Act, authorizes NIH to fund alternative ways to generate embryonic-like cells without killing human embryos, and S. 3504, The Fetus Farming Prohibition Act, bans the practice of gestating human fetuses for the sole purpose of harvesting their tissue for research. With both pieces of legislation, supporters were attempting to push our nation's science policy forward in ethical directions.

In preparation for the Senate debate, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a lead proponent of embryonic stem cell research and cloning, urged his colleagues to vote for all three bills, stating, “a yes vote on H.R. 810 is the only one that matters . . . the other two bills are harmless but accomplish nothing.” In the House, embryonic stem cell advocates reluctantly supported the fetus farming ban but actively opposed the alternative stem cell bill. They successfully prevented passage of the latter, claiming that the bill would “delay cures.”

Accomplish nothing? Delay cures? Is this in fact the case?

Supporters of S. 2754 were attempting to present a compromise that would require NIH to investigate ethical techniques that do not require the destruction of embryos. For years now, American society has drifted toward a secular, materialistic view of the world in which scientists and physicians serve as its modern-day priests—whether or not their research goals violate the long-standing tradition of promoting human dignity. If Congress had passed S. 2754, it would have established a moral framework for government research that serves all of our citizens. Congress would also have demonstrated great confidence in the creative capabilities of American scientists to discover life-saving cures without resorting to the destruction of nascent human life. Unfortunately, some embryonic stem cell advocates were not interested in compromise. But that does not cheapen the valiant efforts of those who sought to ensure that our commitment to scientific progress is matched by our commitment to human dignity.

Criticisms were also leveled at the fetus farming ban, which President Bush signed into law on Wednesday. Supporters of the ban were accused of “right-wing fear mongering” since no respectable scientist is attempting this gruesome practice today. However, since worrisome trends in the scientific literature give cause for concern, Congress was wise to act while the political winds are still favorable. In developing animal models for therapeutic cloning, stem cell researchers have gestated cloned animal embryos for several weeks or months in order to generate “useful” tissue for medical transplantation. These researchers are not seeking advances in veterinary medicine. One researcher, commenting on his study, said, “We hope to use this technology in the future to treat [human] patients with diverse diseases.” Enacting legislation now ensures that nascent human life will not be relegated to second-class status as an organ factory. Significantly, this is the first absolute bioethical boundary our government has drawn to date.

The ban on fetus farming as well as the alternative stem bill that failed to pass Congress show how it is possible to be both pro-science and pro-ethics at the same time. And the president's signing of the fetus farming ban on the same day that he rejected the utilitarian logic of embryonic stem cell research is hardly an insignificant accomplishment.

—Michelle Kirtley, Ph.D., Professional Staff
    Congressman Dave Weldon, M.D. (R-FL)


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”