More MS news articles for Sep 2001

Bush Policy on Stem Cells Appears Safe on Hill

Sunday, September 2, 2001; Page A15
By Justin Gillis and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers

As Congress begins to scrutinize President Bush's controversial new policy on embryonic stem cell research this week, it appears that neither opponents nor supporters of the work have the votes on Capitol Hill to overturn Bush's compromise.

While that could change depending on the outcome of three upcoming Senate hearings, for now both sides acknowledge they fear reopening the fight because the nation could wind up with a worse policy, from their perspective, than the one Bush approved.

"At the end of the day, the president has at least bought himself some time," said conservative commentator William Kristol, whose new Bioethics Project opposes research on embryonic stem cells and cloning. "I'd be surprised if there was a serious effort to overturn the Bush policy."

Advocates of stem cell research remain skeptical that the existing colonies of cells that Bush has approved for federal funding will be as useful for science as his administration claims. At the same time, most of them are happy that at least some research will go forward. Opponents of the work are unhappy that Bush did not ban it completely but are pleased by elements of his plan that were designed to discourage destruction of embryos.

The politics of the issue remain volatile and uncertain, in part because Congress has been on summer recess and many members have yet to delve into the intricacies of the Bush plan. Senators will analyze it in detail in a string of hearings before two panels the first of which will be held on Wednesday9/5 in one of the Senate's large, ornate hearing rooms. Lawmakers will try to resolve several controversies that have erupted since Bush announced his policy in an address to the nation on Aug. 9.

At the first hearing, to be chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the first witness scheduled to speak is Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican who has championed research on embryonic stem cells.

Specter is expected to focus attention on what he sees as gaps in the administration's policy particularly lingering questions about how many stem cell colonies are really available for research and how useful they might be when scientists are ready to begin human tests. The Kennedy hearing will be followed on Sept. 12 and Sept. 19 by hearings in front of a subcommittee that approves money for medical research.

Embryonic stem cells used for research are human cells derived from microscopic, days-old human embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics because they are no longer needed by the couples that created them.

The colonies of cells derived and kept alive in the laboratory for the first time in 1998 can, in theory, renew themselves indefinitely and be induced to turn into any kind of human tissue, possibly offering a source of replacement tissues and organs for ailing bodies.

The cells are controversial because their creation involves the destruction of embryos. Many groups that oppose abortion, test-tube fertility treatment or both are against the research, depending as it does on the commission of an act that they regard as morally equivalent to murder.

Scientists have said that the young field of stem cell research won't advance rapidly without federal money because private investors are generally unwilling to finance such early work.

After months of pressure from both sides, Bush announced on Aug. 9 that he would allow the government to pay for research on stem cell colonies that had already been created. He said he wanted to reduce the incentives for further destruction of embryos.

But fewer verified cell colonies appear to be available for research than Bush initially said, and the ones that are available have been mixed with mouse cells in the laboratory. That could severely limit their usefulness in human tests because the mixtures could pose a risk of infecting people with animal viruses.

But as a piece of political strategy, all sides of the debate acknowledge, Bush's decision has so far proved masterful. He has effectively neutralized critics on both the left and the right.

The Bush policy is "not as bad as some of the alternatives," said Richard Doerflinger, who lobbies on abortion and related issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "My expectation is, in the immediate future, there are enough members of Congress willing to give the president's plan a chance to work."

A spokesman for the Republican Main Street Partnership, which favors stem cell research, used nearly the same language to sum up the group's predicament. "Clearly, it was better than the alternative," said Ron Talley.

One notable exception is the view of the Family Research Council, a conservative group that has called its supporters to action. "Mr. Bush had the opportunity to slam shut this Pandora's box, but instead he opened it, just a crack to be sure, but enough to let loose this evil," Ken Connor, president of the council, wrote to supporters last week.

Some scientists working in the field said they worry that debate over how well Bush's policy will work in the long run may cloud immediate research goals that have suddenly become attainable using federal funds.

"The fundamental point is that, before the president's speech, it was not possible to use federal funds to study human [embryonic stem] cells and after, it was possible," said Ron McKay, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health who has spent years experimenting with mouse cells. "If I had one human [stem] cell in my hand, our group could do very useful work on that cell."

McKay said that he is not discounting concerns over the quantity, quality and accessibility of stem cell colonies but that he believes federal policy can be adjusted as those issues arise.

The question at the moment is whether the hearings will turn up anything sensational enough to change the political dynamic. Senate aides said they expect Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to be peppered with questions about his assertion early on that, under the Bush policy, scientists would have more than 60 "robust" cell colonies to experiment on.

That number was a shock to scientists in the field. The NIH waited for 18 days after Bush gave his speech to release a list backing up the claim. It contained 64 cell colonies, but it turned out that not enough work had been done on most of them to verify that they are likely to be useful in research. Indeed, not only have they not been proven to be "robust," most of the cell colonies on the list have yet to be definitively shown to be made up of embryonic stem cells.

The stem cell issue is likely to get its most thorough airing in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where a substantial majority of lawmakers, including more than a dozen Republicans, have gone on record favoring such research.

"I think the central point is that if the 64 cell lines and what the president has said proves to be inadequate, there's a lot of residual determination in the Senate to see meaningful stem cell research go forward," Specter said. "We just have to answer these questions. We do intend to get to the bottom of it."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company