Faith In Stem Cells
By Connie Mack
In the next few weeks, President Bush faces a very difficult decision: whether to continue federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research. As a cancer survivor, a former senator and a pro-life Republican, I hope that he decides to let this research move forward with continued federal support.
Like many people, I approach this issue from a personal perspective. I am a cancer survivor, as are several members of my family. We all know that it's one thing to read about scientific progress and another to be alive as a result. My brother, Michael, lost his battle with malignant melanoma. I think of him and of the nearly 100 million Americans who suffer from cancer and other devastating diseases for which treatments must still be found. I realize that scientists must have the freedom, and the funding, to keep searching.
One of the most promising avenues today in biomedical research involves stem cells. Researchers say that these are the basic building blocks of human development that can transform themselves into all the specialized tissues that make up the human body.
Stem cells are found in all human embryos and in some types of adult tissues, but most scientists say that embryonic stem cells offer the greatest possibilities for new ways to treat disease. The source of some of the stem cells, however, makes the president's decision on federally funded stem-cell research difficult.
It is essential to note that, under research guidelines carefully crafted by the National Institutes of Health, embryos could not be created for research. Rather, these embryonic stem cells would be obtained from frozen embryos that are left over after a couple completes an infertility treatment called in vitro fertilization (IVF), which can produce many excess embryos. Some are implanted into the woman who is having difficulty becoming pregnant. The excess embryos are stored frozen for so long they cannot be used for implantation or they are simply discarded. Currently there are some 100,000 frozen embryos stored in IVF clinics.
It is the stem cells from surplus IVF embryos, donated with the informed consent of couples, that could give researchers the chance to move embryonic stem-cell research forward. I believe it would be wrong not to use them to potentially save the lives of people. I know that several members of Congress who consider themselves to be pro-life have also come to this conclusion.
I understand that, to prevent abuse, we may need to make the NIH guidelines on embryonic stem cells even more stringent. But keep in mind that private companies are free to conduct this research with very little federal oversight. With federal funding, the government will retain the right to regulate the use of stem cells and to control standard practice.
In recent weeks, we have read about advances in research using adult stem cells or stem cells from fat tissue. But most scientists strongly suggest that it's far too early to know whether adult stem-cell research alone will lead to practical treatments, or whether adult stem cells have the same research potential as embryonic stem cells. I strongly support adult stem-cell research, but prohibiting federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research seems short-sighted. We must pursue all legitimate avenues of research with appropriate safeguards.
I consider the sanctity of life paramount in my religious values and in my political principles. But I am not alone in calling for the federal government to continue federal funding for stem-cell research. I am joined by many patient groups, scientific societies, universities and bioethics panels, along with a host of Nobel laureates and religious leaders. A national public opinion poll conducted in January also revealed that more than twice as many Americans support federal funding of stem-cell research as oppose it (65 percent to 26 percent).
For me, this is a question of life and death. I think of my brother, but I'm sure every American family has faced the terrible ordeal of watching a loved one pass away under the shadow of a disease for which the doctors had no adequate response. Stem-cell research raises new hopes for people in pain and distress. I cannot sit by and let those hopes go unexplored. I hope that President Bush will come to the same conclusion and allow federal funding for responsible and ethical embryonic stem-cell research.
The author is a former U.S. senator from Florida.
To learn more please visit www.stemcellfunding.org/cell.