Bush Likely to Ban Funds for Stem Cell Research

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Susan Cullman

(WOMENSENEWS)-Pro-choice advocates are increasingly fearful that abortion opponents may successfully lobby President Bush to block government funding of embryonic stem cell research, setting back potentially life-saving scientific study.

“The hope of what this science could produce is really tantalizing. To have it clouded by the choice issue is a real misuse of political thinking,” said Susan Cullman, co-chair of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. “There’s a real worry that the funds might be stopped. We think it would be a bad mistake that would resonate far beyond the choice community.”

The Bush administration is expected to announce within the next few weeks its decision on whether to fund this controversial type of medical research, never funded in the past. Many scientists believe that stem cells, which can be extracted from human embryos, could be critical to discovering cures for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and other illnesses.

Embryonic stem cells are promising because they can be manipulated to develop into any of the body’s tissues. Other research, still being debated, suggests that adult stems cells might be an alternative. However, some scientists argue adult stem cells are not as elastic as embryonic cells and would not be as promising for treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes.

Researchers working in this area exclusively use embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures that otherwise would be destroyed. Though private research continues in this field, the loss of government funding could seriously set back further advances since the government’s National Institutes of Health accounts for most of the medical research carried out in the United States.

Hot-button Abortion Issue Could Scuttle Stem Cell Research

“This is something America should be totally behind. It’s really unfortunate that a small group of people has just kept this a hot-button issue,” said Marjorie Signer, communications director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

“It shows to what length people are willing to go to attack the abortion rights issue.” Signer, too, said she is worried that the Bush administration will stop federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. ThompsonPresident Bush has asked Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to review Clinton-era guidelines that would have allowed such funding, but only if it met certain restrictions that addressed moral and ethical questions. Under the National Institutes of Health guidelines, which are on hold pending the Bush administration review, researchers receiving government money could not themselves destroy embryos and would have to obtain consent from donors. Also, embryos could not be created specifically for any research purpose.

The Bush administration is divided on the issue. President Bush stated during the campaign last year that he is opposed to using embryos for stem cell research. But Thompson, a Catholic who opposes abortion, has indicated he might support it.

Thompson expects a decision by the end of June or the first half of July, said Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Hall.

“We are internally reviewing the stem cell guidelines and gathering as much information as possible,” said Hall. “The Secretary will confer with the President and put all the options on the table. As the White House has indicated, the President will be involved in the decision on that.”

National Institutes of Health Proposes Strict Regulation of Research

Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, is among those lobbying to block government funding of embryonic stem cell research. His organization has filed suit in federal court in Washington to block the National Institutes of Health stem cell guidelines. The lawsuit is in a holding pattern pending the Bush administration decision.

Stevens said he is optimistic that the decision will go in his organization’s favor. “I believe they are going to change the guidelines. I don’t think they are going to fund destructive embryonic stem cell research,” he said.

“Using embryonic stem cells for research purposes is immoral, illegal and unnecessary,” Stevens added. “Once we begin sacrificing on the altar of science, where do we stop? They are making a decision to sacrifice one individual for the good of another. That’s a dangerous bridge to cross.”

Stevens said he believed the government would seek to continue stem cell research, but using stem cells extracted from adult tissue, an avenue his group would support. “We’re very pro-science. We see enormous potential in stem cell research,” he said.

Signer, of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said she was dismayed that the whole issue of embryonic stem cell research had been linked to the abortion debate. She pointed out that many people active in so-called disease groups–advocates for sufferers of Parkinson’s and other diseases–have put aside their views on abortion to actively push for government funding.

Many Who Oppose Abortion Support Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The groups that represent people with diseases have done tremendous work, some of them with people who are not particularly pro-choice, Signer said. As a result, these advocates and their supporters “have been staying on the message of life-saving research,” she said.

What worries pro-choice advocates most is that the result of the current debate over the use of embryos could seriously hamper scientific research.

“It’s sinful,” said Lynn Grefe, executive director of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. “We didn’t believe man could fly but, because we invested in it, it happened. It just seems that we have an opportunity with these stem cells to make major advances in medicine.”

Cullman, co-chair of the coalition, agreed. “I see only good in this. No one is looking to condone any commercial use,” she said. “If the administration stops the funding, it will have to come from the highest level in the administration. It will be right smack in the office of the President.”

Vera Haller is a free-lance writer in New York.

For more information, visit:

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice:
http://www.rcrc.org

Republican Pro-Choice Coalition:
http://www.rpcc.org

Christian Medical Association:
http://www.cmds.org

National Institutes of Health:
http://www.nih.gov



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