[This article appeared in The Boston Globe op-ed section, p.A23, on Wednesday, August 15, 2001.]
Shortsightedness on Stem Cell Research
August 15, 2001 -- America is grappling with the complicated issues of stem cell research and human cloning. We are at a fork in the scientific road and must choose our path carefully. Virtually all Americans, including our leading researchers, completely reject the idea of human cloning. That has been the easy part of this debate. As with every issue, there is a small fringe element society must watch and contain. But this concern should not prevent us from thoughtful consideration of other scientific issues.
In the last two weeks, President Bush has come out against two very important methods of scientific research - stem cells and cell therapy. He is profoundly wrong on both of these critical issues.
Recently, the US House of Representatives voted to prohibit human cloning. However, the bill also bans a research procedure which opponents label "therapeutic cloning". I voted against this proposal and supported an alternative that simply prohibited human cloning. The procedure under attack is a valid and important scientific approach. There is absolutely no intent to create life. It is a method to get certain cells to divide with the hope of finding cures for various diseases. In fact, many leading scientists refer to the procedure as "cell therapy" in order to more accurately describe the activity and the intent.
This bill would also criminalize the importation of drugs created in other countries that result from cell therapy. President Bush supports this bill, it passed the House and awaits action in the Senate.
Most recently, the President effectively banned research on embryonic stem cells. He claims his proposal is a compromise since he allows federal funding for continued research on 60 existing strains of stem cells. Yet he himself recognizes there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of potential stem cells lying frozen in fertility clinics across this country. Pursuant to the President's decision, most will simply be flushed down a drain because no one except researchers wants them. They are not human life and they will never be human life. Our best scientists consider embryonic stem cell research to offer great promise for curing many diseases, from Parkinson's to juvenile diabetes to spinal injuries. Yet our President, without any evidence that existing stem cells suffice, promises to veto any legislation that makes more available.
As I consider the combined effect of criminalizing cell therapy, prohibiting the importation of drugs created from such research and severely restricting federal funding for stem cell research, I fear for America's future.
First, there is no way America can ban any research method taking place in other countries. Remember, Dolly the cloned sheep was developed in Europe, not in the US. Just this month, scientists in Israel grew heart muscle from stem cells. So, when a researcher in France or Burundi finds a cure for juvenile diabetes as a result of cell therapy, many Americans will reach for their passports and take all their US dollars overseas (but not their health insurance, because it probably won't pay for a drug treatment that is illegal in the US).
As for stem cell research, the President has not yet suggested a prohibition on privately funded activities -- I guess we should consider this a small victory. However, many of our most talented researchers will not have the ability to study stem cells without federal funding. Furthermore, when researchers who are either privately funded or located in other countries make discoveries based on stem cell research, federally funded scientists will not be allowed to use this information. Increasingly, biomedical research and industry will move out of America.
Countless medical organizations support embryonic stem cell research, including: the American Medical Association, the Alliance for Aging Research, the American Association of Cancer Research and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. No one denies the need for a conscientious society to keep close watch on research for moral, ethical and safety reasons.
There are many relevant lessons in world history. From the Dark Ages through the Renaissance, researchers were persecuted if they performed an autopsy on a human body. Later, x-rays were denounced as evil because mankind was not "meant" to see through skin. More recently, the polio vaccine was withheld for some time because politicians feared its use even though scientists knew how to combat the deadly disease.
Today, humanity is once again at a fork in the scientific road. Do we want to go forward to increase knowledge and improve the health of future generations? I say yes. Certainly we must remain vigilant. Let's work with scientists to set thoughtful limits that will allow advances without compromising our moral values. The discoveries that their research yields will cure diseases and make life better for many of our neighbors, friends and family.