July 24, 2006

The Bush Decision Didn't Matter Anyway

Caplan & McGee on Bioethics has become McGee on Bioethics, as Art takes up writing responsibilities for the Philadelphia Inquirer. This Sunday then is the first installment of the new straight-up edition of the Times-Union/Hearst/New York Times News Service column, in which McGee argues that the Bush veto of stem cell legislation favored by the vast majority of Americans and a many in his own party in Washington is, well, irrelevant:
The Washington imbroglio over stem cell research is history, as is any hope that the federal government will devote any real funding to the research during the next three years. The annals of scientific history, no matter which party is writing them, will not smile upon President Bush's callous disregard toward those who entrusted his office to put science policy ahead of religious dogma.

Surrounded by "snowflakes," children made from embryos that were never destined to be used for the derivation of stem cells, Mr. Bush used nothing less than his first presidential veto to suppress legislation by his own party to expand by only a tiny amount the stem cell research funded by the National Institutes of Health. The President might seem oblivious to the overwhelming majority of Americans who favor embryonic stem cell research, including millions who suffer from diseases that it will likely be used one day to treat. But the truth is that he isn't.

This President has made a decision to leave controversial matters of science and medicine to the states. It was clear from the moment he offered up his odd logic, in August 2001, that there was no need for the federal government to fund or regulate the creation of embryonic stem cells for research because there were 62 "ethical" lines of embryonic stem cells already on ice.

Only much fewer of the cell lines were viable, and the ethics of the policy made no ethical sense to anyone. It was enough to send some American stem cell researchers into orbit, or at least to Britain, Israel, Canada, and -- California. There, just as the President was elected by the narrowest of margins, a bankrupt state voted by a handy margin to devote almost 10 times more money for stem cell research than has been proposed for the federal government.

These days, the none-too-united states have taken on roles that would have been unthinkable three years ago. The governor of Illinois ensures the passage of stem cell funding legislation in that state, then launches a letter-writing campaign to lure Missouri's top scientists across the Mississippi River. Nor is Illinois alone. Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey could watch the federal debate and mutter to themselves how nice it is not to suffer under the Bush stem cell policy.

New York's stem cell researchers, along with those in 26 states that have laws banning or restricting the research, can be forgiven for checking on real estate and schools in New Jersey and California. Unable to fund research, forced to work with cells that arrive in plain brown wrappers or to employ technicians in other states to do much of their research, our researchers keep company not with snowflakes, but with patients who have juvenile diabetes, parents who have spinal cord injuries and grandparents who endure Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The battle for stem cell research in the states is getting stranger by the minute. Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney vetoed legislation promoting the research, but was overridden and the state now has an even more ambitious program of research under way than was originally proposed. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, supports funding for the research in that state, where the cells were discovered, but is at risk for doing so.

And in New York, the state with more potential candidates for stem cell therapies than any other, and a huge majority in favor of embryonic stem cell research, two gubernatorial candidates have announced opposite positions on the research, with one -- Eliot Spitzer -- strongly embracing it.

But for now, the state of the research, the state of the science and the state of our state's scientific standing are all at risk, thanks to the final chapter of the Bush science novella.

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