issue guide: Stem Cell Research

The Skinny

see also background & facts, pro & con, links

What's Up

In 2001 President Bush reversed a Clinton era order that opened up federally funded stem cell research and, instead, limited public research to cells from a handful of existing stem cell "lines." Throughout Bush's years there were calls from a growing number of Democrats and Republicans to "lift the ban on stem cell research." While there was no outright ban – after all, private companies, states and localities could fund all the stem cell research they wanted – the administration, on moral and ethical grounds, limited federally funded research to only certain lines of cells. That was bad news for research, according to many scientists, who said the limits slowed the progress of curing many diseases.

With a new administration in 2009, stem cell policy flipped again. This time the National Institute of Health, with the blessing of President Obama, okayed research on stem cells from embryos left unused at fertility clinics.

Over the past few years, Congress had also led efforts to reverse Bush's stem cell policy by opening up federal research funds to new cell lines, only to get nixed by a presidential veto in 2006 and 2007. With the new administration rule, the question is now whether Congess will bother backing up Obama's order with a - harder-to-roll-back - law (NYT).

What the Debate's About

Stem cells are "blank slate" cells that can give rise to specialized cells - nerve cells, muscle cells, etc. - if placed in the right environment. For scientists, learning how these cells work could give important insights into human diseases; the cells themselves could be used in techniques to cure diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes, and spinal cord injury. Stem cells are found in adults and embryos, but cells from embryos are thought to have the most therapeutic potential. Harvesting stem cells from embryos, however, is objectionable to many on both moral and ethical grounds.

Bush's 2001 policy aimed to be a compromise between research advocates and ethicists; he opted to allow federal funds to go toward research on embryonic stem cell lines that already existed but said no federally funded research could happen on embryonic cell lines that were created after April, 2001. That way, the reasoning went, federal funds wouldn't encourage the harvesting of new embryos. Meanwhile, research on non-embryonic stem cells could still get federal funds, and private companies, states and localities were free to fund any kind of research.

Advocates for stem cell research see this as a poor compromise. They say federal funds play too important a role in research and that problems with existing stem cell lines make them less than ideal for research. They also argue that stem cell research wouldn't have to create new embryos in order to harvest them – but that it could use unused embryos from fertility clinics that were on their way to destruction anyway.

The debate is complicated by scientific unknowns, including when, if ever, stem cell therapies will lead to concrete cures and how much more promise embryonic stem cells hold over adult stem cells.

Where Things Stand Now

A bill okaying research on embryos created in fertility clinics was passed in the House in May, 2005 and in the Senate July, 2006, but was vetoed by President Bush, who vetoed a similar bill, S 5, in June '07 (WP). President Bush's ban on federal funding for reseach on new stem cell lines was lifted by President Obama in April '09, but Congress could act and pass its own law as well (WP).

Updated April 18, 2009

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