July 20, 2006

Jim Fossett on the Bush Veto: A Bump Not a Barrier

Advocates for expanded stem cell research should not overstate the consequences of President Bush’s veto of a bill to expand the number of stem cell lines eligible for federal funding. While the current policy that the veto sustains can be fairly accused of slowing up the pace of stem cell research to an unknown extent and making it more expensive, it’s important to remember that this policy does not prevent funding of stem cell research from non-federal sources, outlaw or limit expanded research financed with other sources, make it illegal or even more difficult for couples to donate frozen embryos for research purposes, or have any affect on such research outside the borders of the United States. The long term effects of this veto, to steal a phrase from David Stockman, may be less than meets the eye.

First, the question of funding. While it’s true that the Bush Administration’s policy has restricted funding of stem cell research from federal sources, it has no effect on research supported from other sources. In the face of federal restrictions, private foundations and states have become increasingly active in supporting this research. If one adds up all the resources that have been committed or approved from private or state sources, it almost certainly exceeds by a large margin what would have been spent by NIH and other federal agencies on embryonic stem cell research had the Bush restrictions not been in place. It is true that it has taken time for these other funding sources to come on line and researchers have been forced to take extraordinary measures to segregate federally supported research from that supported by other sources, but these obstacles have at worst slowed the pace of scientific research, not stopped it. As noted here, some are of the view that claims by the University of Wisconsin, which holds several major patents on stem cell technology, may be a bigger problem over the long run than any federal funding restrictions, Even if President Bush had signed the stem cell bill, it would not have made more federal money available for research, nor would have it removed all restrictions on the use of federal funding in stem cell research. Andrew Pollock of the Times has a good explanation of these issues here.

Second, it’s really hard to tell what the absence of the Bush Administration’s restrictions would have had on the availability of embryos from which new cell lines can be derived. While it’s certainly true that the number of embryos originally collected for assisted reproductive purposes is very large and growing rapidly, it’s hard to see how the supply of those embryos which couples are willing to make available for research would be greatly affected by the availability of federal funds to derive new stem cell lines from them. There are no particular barriers to couples donating unused embryos to research now, but only about three percent of unused embryos are currently donated. If this percentage holds, more embryos may become available as the number of unused embryos grows. As reported here, however, many couples are ambivalent about donating, or frequently “abandon” embryos, leaving fertility clinics with large supplies of unclaimed embryos of uncertain legal, or moral, status.

Third, the stem cell research issue seems to be getting slowly decoupled from the politically toxic abortion issue. Public opinion on this issue, as described here and here, has never been as polarized as many have thought. The popular image of a large, rigid majority of Christian evangelicals confronting a large, rigid majority of latte liberals simply isn’t true—plenty of people appear both to support stem cell research AND accord some kind of special moral status to embryos. Politicians are also beginning to take less rigid positions---the bill which the President vetoed was supported by a number of ardently pro-life Senators---Majority Leader Bill Frist, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Bob Bennett of Utah, Trent Lott of Mississippi, and Orrin Hatch of Utah. Stem cell advocates also owe a big shoutout to Nancy Reagan, who has probably done more than any other individual to make supporting stem cells politically respectable for conservatives. As David Broder also notes here stem cells have become political issues in several close Senate races. Democrats appear optimistic that they can use the issue to their advantage—Missouri and Pennsylvania are mentioned most often, but stem cell positions also separate the parties in Senate campaigns in New Jersey, Maryland and Tennessee.

Finally, it is highly likely that the first stem cell breakthrough, whether it happens here or somewhere else, will effectively end this debate. Not even the most ardent stem cell opponent is likely to be willing to get up in public and tell people that they should forego effective treatment for themselves or a loved one.

Jim Fossett is co-Director of the Program on States and Bioethics of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and AMBI

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