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Is anyone else weary of this federal imbroglio over embryonic stem-cell research?

When right-wing politicians initially took over the Oval Office, it was a siren song that there would be no federally funded research on embryonic stem cells. These are the miraculous wonder cells that are formed in the first few days of an embryo and offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues because of their ability to regenerate into any type of cell. Scientists believe that these cells hold the key to treating and curing everything from shattered spines to Alzheimer’s disease.

Last summer the debate was effectively ended when a conservative Republican Congress, frightened of losing its majority in the 2006 elections, voted to pass a bill relaxing President Bush’s restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. The vote accentuated that those opposed to this research were a shrinking minority: more than 70 percent of Americans say they favor embryonic stem-cell research, and even Evangelicals are split fifty-fifty.

President Bush killed the bill by issuing his first veto, which indeed may have contributed to the Republicans’ narrow loss in last year’s congressional elections. Certainly, his action seemed out of touch with science, with the will of the majority, and even with a branch of the right wing led by abortion foes, such as Senator Orin Hatch (R-UT), who view embryonic stem cells in a petri dish as cells, not human beings.

Now the Senate is set to pass a bill, similar to one approved earlier this year by the House in the first 100 hours of the Democratic Congress, that relaxes the funding restrictions for embryos discarded during in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments that could be used to develop stem-cell lines for research and treatment.

Conservative Republicans have proposed an alternative bill that would allow federal funding for embryonic stem cells derived from fetuses that cannot grow into humans. This is a retreat from an earlier right-wing bill that called for a complete banning of all embryonic stem-cell research.

Bush has said that he supports the Republican measure and will again veto the Democrats’ bill. His veto is likely to stand in a sharply divided Congress.

As we know, some religious conservatives, including the president, believe that using embryos for research is the same thing as experimenting on and murdering humans. But as the Harvard bioethicist Michael Sandel writes this week in the Boston Globe, if Bush truly believed this, he would insist on a ban rather than restrictions. The administration’s policy allows state and private funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

Sandel, who wrote a thoughtful cover story in 2004 for the Atlantic Monthly titled “The Case against Perfection,” writes in the Globe,

If he [Bush] does not want to ban embryonic stem cell research, or prosecute stem cell scientists for murder, or ban fertility clinics from creating and discarding excess embryos, this must mean that he does not really consider human embryos as morally equivalent to fully developed human beings after all.

But if he doesn’t believe that embryos are persons, then why ban federally funded embryonic stem cell research that holds promise for curing diseases and saving lives?

To me, the biopragmatist, Sandel’s argument is interesting but fails to acknowledge the central reality in this tortuous debate: that the discussion about allowing or not allowing stem-cell research is over. All over the world, stem-cell research is being conducted, and it will not be stopped.

I’m all for being cautious about embracing new and unknown discoveries and technologies that impact the basic stuff of life. But it’s long past time to move on to the next phase of the debate, the one about how to safely pursue stem-cell research to ensure that we don’t make mistakes.

I look forward to this secular debate, which has been going on in the United Kingdom and Australia and in other countries but has yet to really be chatted up here in America.

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Tagged: stem cells

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