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Research avenue adds fuel to stem cell controversy


By Eleni Berger

TOPLINE: U.S. President George W. Bush has endorsed limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The complex and controversial issue has divided members of his own party and pitted the scientific community against religious leaders. Bush said federal funds would only be used for research on 60 existing embryo stem cell lines "where a life-and-death decision has already been made." The embryos for these lines have already been destroyed.

IN CONTEXT: Because harvesting stem cells destroys the embryo, this medical research has become entangled in the abortion debate. Research opponents say it is wrong because it destroys human life. Supporters say the embryos were going to be destroyed anyway, and that research from their cells holds the potential to cure debilitating diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Creating embryos intended only for research raises new questions about the ethics of stem cell science.

Scientists in Virginia injected a new element into the debate over embryonic stem cell research by announcing they had created human embryos specifically for the purpose of extracting the stem cells. Until now, such research has been conducted on embryos left over from fertility treatments or from abortions.

Stem cells are "blank" cells that have the potential to develop into any type of cell in the body -- nerve cells, heart cells, kidney cells. Scientists are trying to harvest the cells before they have differentiated, then coax them into becoming certain types. If they could grow cardiac cells, for instance, scientists one day might be able to replace damaged heart tissue in someone who has had a heart attack. By growing nerve cells they might be able to repair brain cells damaged by Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, or replace injured spinal cord cells in a paraplegic.

Researchers say the field is promising, though no cures have been developed from stem cell research.

  •  Topline

  •  In context

  •  Key questions

  •  Key players

  •  Bottom line


Some researchers are also looking into the possibility of using adult stem cells, such as those derived from bone marrow, as an alternative to embryonic cells. However, many researchers say adult cells are not as flexible as embryonic cells and so are less capable of growing into different kinds of tissue.

Currently, embryonic stem cell research in the United States is privately funded. The Clinton administration last year developed rules for funding stem cell research but they never were implemented, leaving the issue a decision for the Bush administration. In the 2000 campaign, Bush said he was against stem cell funding, but reconsidered the issue after taking office.

Stem cell researchers and advocates for people who hope to benefit from the research say federal funding could speed the development of therapies and keep the United States at the forefront of a medical field it pioneered. Anti-abortion groups say destroying an embryo to get the stem cells is an unacceptable use of taxpayer dollars.

In making his decision, the president faced conflicting views within his own party and went against his own promise made in the 2000 presidential campaign to ban funding for the research. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has been a leading advocate of stem cell research. Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, whose anti-abortion stances are well known, publicly supported federal funding of stem cell research, and a group of 38 House Republicans sent a letter supporting the funding as well. But prominent GOP leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Minority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, urged the president to issue a ban on federal funds. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, an administration ally and the Senate's lone physician, advocated a limited approach to the issue.


• What political damage does Bush risk by allowing limited federal funding?

• Could stem cell research really hold the promise scientists hope it holds?

• Would a breakthrough in stem cell research change the nature of the debate?

• Will allowing limited federal funding of stem cell research reignite a fierce battle over abortion rights?

• Is there an ethical difference between creating human embryos specifically for stem cell extraction versus extraction from embryos left over from fertility treatments or abortion?



U.S. President George W. Bush: The president was under intense pressure from people on both sides of the stem cell issue to decide in their favor. He risks alienating a key support base -- religious conservatives and other anti-abortion rights groups -- by allowing even limited federal funding.


U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson: Within the Bush administration, Thompson is a leading advocate of federally funded stem cell research.

Orrin Hatch

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah): Hatch, though opposed to abortion rights, has urged Bush to allow federal funding of stem cell research, saying it is in line with "pro-life" values.


U.S. Representative Dick Armey (R-Texas): The former House Majority Leader and several other prominent Republicans have sent Bush a letter urging him to ban federal funds for stem cell research.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: Like many religious groups that are opposed to abortion, the NCCB opposes federal funding of stem cell research. However, the group says it supports using public money for research on adult stem cells.

Dr. John Gearhart: A pioneer of stem cell research, Gearhart says banning federal funds would slow down medical advances and be a setback for patient care. He also says federal funding would mean greater oversight of research labs that would ensure ethical guidelines were being followed.

Mary Tyler Moore: Actress Mary Tyler Moore, who has suffered from diabetes for more than 30 years, has been a leading advocate for stem cell research, testifying before Congress numerous times.

BOTTOM LINE: Bush's limited approach may allow some research, but with neither side in this contentious debate completely satisfied, the president may have to wait for the public to react before knowing whether his compromise was successful.



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