More MS news articles for June 2001

Commentary: I'm Pro-Life -- and in Favor of Stem Cell Research

June 19, 2001
By Connie Mack, a former Republican U.S. senator from Florida.

President Bush will soon face a decision on one of the most important scientific issues of our time: whether or not the administration should continue to provide federal funding for research on human stem cells. I know it will be a difficult choice. As both a cancer survivor and a pro-life Catholic, I have struggled with the issue myself. Yet after weighing the facts and the moral issues, I'm convinced that the right choice is clear. I hope the president allows federal support to continue for this vital research.

The news about stem cells resonated strongly with my family. Several of us are cancer survivors. My brother, however, was unable to beat it. The stem-cell breakthrough made me 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. Stopping federal support could set back research by decades.

Let's start with the facts. Several years ago, scientists announced breakthroughs in biomedical research in an area that most people had never even heard of: stem cells. Researchers say these are the basic building blocks of human development, cells that can transform themselves into all the specialized tissues that make up a human body. That means they could replace defective or missing cells, potentially leading to dramatic new treatments or even cures for diseases as diverse as Alzheimer's, cancer, Parkinson's, juvenile diabetes, heart disease and spinal-cord injuries.

Stem cells are found in some types of adult tissues, but most scientists believe stem cells from fertilized eggs offer the greatest hope for scientific advancement.

Because of the ethical, legal and social implications of this research, the National Institutes of Health established strict guidelines under which scientists must operate. These guidelines were developed and approved by scientists, patient advocates and experts in medical ethics. They require scientists who take part in stem-cell research using fertilized eggs to obtain them from couples undergoing infertility treatment. This process, known as in vitro fertilization, requires the generation of a substantial number of fertilized eggs. A few are implanted in the woman trying to get pregnant, and many are stored frozen for years, or simply discarded.

A small portion of existing excess frozen fertilized eggs -- now numbering some 100,000 in IVF clinics -- could be donated with the informed consent of the couples who produced them. They could give researchers the chance to speed new cures and treatments for millions of people. I have come to the conclusion that since nearly all of those fertilized eggs will remain unused, it would be wrong not to allow scientists to use them to save the lives of people.

To be sure, the NIH guidelines may need to be even more stringent. But if we cut off federal funding, we also cut off almost all federal controls. With federal guidelines in place, scientists in the private sector are likely to adhere to this standard.

In recent weeks, I've seen a flurry of news reports about "breakthroughs" in research with adult stem cells or about stem cells in human fat. However, 80 Nobel Prize winners recently wrote to Mr. Bush to say it is far too early to know whether adult stem cells are as promising as the cells from fertilized eggs. The latest research shows there is no conclusive proof yet that fat tissue really does contain stem cells.

Some activists oppose federal support because certain stem cells come from fertilized eggs. They believe this raises a right-to-life issue. While I take their concerns very seriously, I believe it is important to distinguish between a frozen fertilized egg in a test tube and a fetus.

When fertilized eggs are frozen, they are comprised of only eight tiny cells. At the time stem cells are obtained for research, a fertilized egg is smaller than the head of a pin. Unlike a fetus, fertilized eggs have not developed a central nervous system, organs or body parts. Rather, they are a collection of undifferentiated cells, meaning they are not specialized to become a particular type of cell. It is also important to remember that couples who donate fertilized eggs for research have already decided they will never be implanted, and will therefore never become a fetus.

While I consider the sanctity of life paramount in my religious values and in my political principles, I know some in the right-to-life community will disagree with me about this particular type of stem-cell research. At the same time, several members of Congress who are pro-life believe strongly that federal funding must continue. Moreover, people from a wide range of religious backgrounds strongly support embryonic stem cell research.

A recent poll by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research found that, after hearing both sides of the issue, fully 70% of the public supported research using stem cells from excess fertilized eggs. What makes the poll even more impressive is the strong backing stem-cell research received from pro-life groups including Catholics (72%), fundamentalist Christians (63%) and abortion opponents (57%). In short, a strong majority of Americans are united in believing the federal government should fund stem-cell research to save lives.

I've lived the terrible ordeal of watching a loved one confront a disease without a cure. Stem-cell research may be controversial, but after a careful review I believe it is an area of scientific research that must be explored. I urge Mr. Bush to allow federal funding for this important line of scientific research.