Today marks the seventh anniversary of George W. Bush’s controversial policy banning federally sponsored research on embryonic stem cell lines. I still remember when I heard his speech: I was on a mission to find a part for an art project I was working on – there’s an ‘antique electronics’ store in North Seattle I thought would do me well. It was one of three times I’ve ever pulled over to listen to a radio broadcast. (The other two: Bill Berry’s retirement and NATO activity in Kosovo.) On August 9, 2001, I wasn’t yet a stem cell researcher, but I had a decent grasp on the scientific and political implications of some of the various proposals Bush could have put forward. I also had read that this statement would be the first the new president would make about an issue his conservative evangelical Christian base cared deeply about.
Before moving on, interested readers might wish to reacquaint themselves with the federal policy about human embryonic stem cell research. The bottom line is that human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines created after 9:00 PM EDT on August 9, 2001 could not be used in research supported by federal funds. Despite the policy being called in the media a ‘stem cell ban,’ there was no prohibition of stem cell research – if you had your own money, you could do whatever you wanted.
What’s funny about the policy decision Bush ended up making is that it was framed as a compromise between science and religion. A compromise is usually an agreement that both sides agree on; this one is one that both sides were unhappy with. Would have representatives of science and faith communities actually sat down to make a proposal, I think the outcome would have been different. Instead, a small group of insulated advisers devised a proposal that they thought would cut political losses.
Consider one Catholic thinker’s perspective. Michael Mendiola wrote about stem cell policy in 2001:
I am uncomfortable with the language of compromise, for it seems to intimate too easily that we may ethically give up or water down our most deeply held convictions. My point, rather, is that we may indeed hold on to those convictions, yet still allow public policies and practices that go against those convictions on good ethical grounds.
He implicitly acknowledges that research on embryonic stem cells could be permitted with the caveat that the policy was founded on some (other than his own) good ethical grounding. As one of my stem cell researching colleagues recently reminded me, this policy overlooked what should be the basic objection to hESC research in the first place: a mass production (and subsequent destruction) of potentially viable human embryos by the in vitro fertilization (IVF) industry.
Not a single embryo being saved from ultimate destruction, as the IVF industry remains without serious regulation. By delaying research, human health was harmed. An opportunity for a serious discussion and enduring compromise on both fertility treatments and stem cell research was bypassed for political expediency.
This is what Catholic and Evangelical opponents to hESC research should have been concerned about. Instead, they were deceived that embryonic stem cells came from aborted fetuses. Sorry folks, the stem cells that come from aborted fetuses are by accepted definition adult stem cells. (By an ironically sick twisting of fact, one adult stem cell proponent included fetal brain cell treatments for Parkinson’s disease as proof that adult stem cells were better than embryonic cells, but that argument is for a different day.) No, IVF wasn’t in the cross-hairs of the Bush policy. It was actually – you guessed it – abortion.
Ask someone on the street today where embryonic stem cells come from and a surprising number belive they are taken from aborted fetuses. You’re not stupid to think this. Some really smart people get this confused, and even more had the science mixed up back when policy discussions about stem cell research were in their prime. The NIH has a good informational sheet about where embryonic stem cells come from at their stem cell website if you need to get back up to speed.
A lot of what I read back in 2000-2004 conflated stem cell research with research on aborted fetuses. Noted ethicists and theologians would base entire arguments against stem cell research upon the notion that people would start getting paid for abortions. The oft-cited quote by Karl Barth that
No community, whether family, village or state, is really strong if it will not carry its weak and even its very weakest members
is a slogan of the anti-abortion movement, and rang familiar to sympathetic people of faith. I think it is fair to use this quote if you agree that a blastocyst in a freezer is in fact a member of a family, village or state. Practically the embryo is neither. These balls of cells languish in liquid nitrogen until their owners decide they are no longer needed, at which point they are thawed and disposed of in bleach.
The end result of the policy is that, anything goes if you have your own money. This slowed down all of the richest universities, but did not stop them, because research was still permitted on the ‘presidentially approved’ lines. This decision to allow certain lines to be researched still bristled with many in the religious community, because respect for the lives of those 60 11 approved lines was still lacking.
Last year, the Bush Administration paid a few minutes attention to the effects of their stem cell policy. The group that first derived human embryonic stem cell lines (Thomson et al) confirmed a Japanese group’s discovery that genetic modification of a few (4!) genes could result in immortalized pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that looked a lot like human embryonic stem cell lines. The idea is that hESC research was rendered superfluous in the context of a technique that generates the same cells but without destroying embryos. For many reasons (offered by the iPSC developers themselves) this is not true, but it does make for a good story. And these cells do present a true middle ground between the scientific proponents and religious opponents to hESC research. But for the Bush administration to take credit for enacting policies that made this research possible is absurd. The groundbreaking studies were conducted in Japan.
I personally believe these iPSCs are more scientifically tenable than hESCs as sources for human therapy, and applaud continued research with them. But so far, every experiment they have been used for has been informed by results from hESC research. Now that Harvard and several other large universities have set up institutes run completely independent of government funding, hESC research will proceed – if at a still delayed pace.
The unfortunate moral of this story is that the Federal government had an opportunity to enact a responsible set of regulations that could have addressed the unacceptably high rate of embryo destruction in IVF clinics, set reasonable guidelines on the use of those samples in research, and taken the lead in conducting responsible life-giving research. Instead, President Bush made a political statement that failed to address both the moral concerns of his religious constituency and the health care concerns of the average science-revering American.
For stem cell scientists, August 9, 2001 is a day that will live in infamy.