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The Stem Cell Political Agenda

Boston Globe, October 17, 2008

Although the topic was at one time front and center in the debates among U.S. presidential candidates, stem cells have receded somewhat from the public consciousness in recent months, due in part to breakthroughs with iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, which avoid the need for embryos and which thereby sidestep the related ethical controversies, and also due in part to the exigencies of more urgent matters such as the recent global financial crisis.

Nevertheless, stem cells remain a subject of intense interest and fierce argument among the general public if not among the presidential candidates, although the topic did resurface briefly during the final presidential debate. While both candidates endorse the idea of relaxing restrictions that currently exist on embryonic stem cell funding, subtle differences separate their policies. A brief summarization of such policies and of the most immediate historical background is provided herein.

As every stem cell scientist clearly remembers, in excrutiating detail, August 9 of 2001 was the day that President George W. Bush banned the use of federal funds for research on embryonic stem cell lines created after that date. He did not ban the use of federal funds for research on embryonic stem cell lines that already existed prior to that date, nor, contrary to widespread misperception, did he ban the use of private funds or state funds for embryonic stem cell research. Indeed, embryonic stem cell research is flourishing in laboratories across the entire U.S., precisely because the restrictions imposed by President Bush had the reverse effect of galvanizing private investors and scientists who were determined to pursue embryonic stem cell research even without federal funding. Harvard University is an excellent example, where the Harvard Stem Cell Institute is heavily involved in embryonic stem cell research and yet it is entirely privately funded. The state of California is another example, where the approval of Proposition 71 allowed for the allocation of $6 billion worth of state money - $3 billion in principal created through bonds, and $3 billion in interest, to be repaid over 30 years - for the funding of embryonic stem cell research, and which thereby also established the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. It may be noted that Proposition 71 passed by a narrow margin of only 59.1% of voters, and was strongly opposed by many individuals and groups including the organization known as "Doctors, Patients and Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility". Nevertheless, having been voted into state law by a narrow majority, Proposition 71 and the embryonic stem cell research that it finances are fully legal and in full accord with President Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, which apply neither to private funding nor to funding by state tax or bond dollars. Contrary to common belief, therefore, President Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research - which consisted of a specific ban only on the use of federal tax dollars for embryonic stem cell research conducted on embryonic stem cell lines created after August 9th of 2001 - did not preclude embryonic stem cell research in the U.S. but in fact had the exact opposite effect by igniting a number of very strong and active privately and state funded embryonic stem cell institutes and projects.

Fast-forwarding several years, the U.S. now awaits a change of administration and with it a probable change in embryonic stem cell policy, although the exact nature of such changes in policy has not yet been explicity defined. Contrary to the GOP platform, John McCain - along with 57 other, mostly Democratic, senators - signed a letter to President Bush in 2004 requesting that restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research be relaxed. Similarly, in 2006 and 2007, both Senators John McCain and Barack Obama voted for a bill to expand the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Both Senator Obama and his running mate, Senator Joe Biden, support a complete overturn of President Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, while Senator McCain's running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, adheres more closely to the official GOP platform by opposing embryonic stem cell research. Although some people question whether or not Senator McCain's position on the issue may have shifted, or will shift, as a result of his running mate's views, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers asserts that, if elected president, McCain would "absolutely" support embryonic stem cell research. Rogers adds, "He bucked his party and the Bush administration in supporting stem cell research, including embryonic stem cell research, and will continue to do so." Previously, however, Senator McCain has stated that, "Recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic", in a direct reference to recent breakthroughs with iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells. Precisely because of such statements made by Senator McCain, a number of people, such as Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, education director for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which opposes embryonic stem cell research, have said that "a certain level of ambiguity" may still be found in McCain's stance. In other words, the full extent to which McCain might "relax" or "expand" the restrictions imposed by President Bush are not entirely clear.

Nevertheless, the day when embryonic stem cell scientists and their laboratories throughout the U.S. might be competing for N.I.H. (National Institutes of Health) grants may not be very far away, but voters will have to wait until after November 4th to learn the exact details of such a prospect.

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