President Bush used the first veto of his presidency to block a bill that would ease the strict regulations on stem cell research. It was 2001, and the prospect of trying to cure disease by using parts of human embryos for experimentation, even if the embryos were going to be discarded anyway, ignited righteous passions in politicians on both sides of the aisle. Unfortunately for stem cell researchers, when the bill was shot down upon reaching the Oval Office, congress couldn’t muster the votes to override the veto.
Since then, scientists have managed to find ways around the restrictive laws and absence of federal support. Michigan has some of the strictest laws in the country, but on the fifth floor of the Undergraduate Life Sciences Building at the University is a state-of-the-art stem cell laboratory staffed with world class scientists. Getting it wasn’t easy, though. The University had to raise money from private donors instead of relying on governmental funding, and it had to get the actual stem cells donated from other states because it’s illegal to do the necessary procedures here.
As with many battles between science and politics, science has adapted and even outpaced political limitations, but the future of stem cell research is by no means certain. The fate of the University’s lab and others like it will rest largely in the hands of the man or woman elected to replace Bush in 2008.
The Statement takes a look at the current batch of political contenders to see where they stand on the issue that could make or break the laboratories that might produce the cures to hundreds of diseases.
It’s commonly understood that there is widespread Democratic support for stem cell research. But if this is true, there are a lot of silent crusaders.
Even on the far left, there are candidates who are staying fairly quiet on the issue. Of course, it’s not enough of a hot-button topic to require a detailed position from every candidate, as health care or the Iraq war does, but what candidates volunteer about an issue before they’re asked says a lot about their priorities.
For example, scouring the online campaign literature of the former Democratic senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel, yields hardly any information about his position on stem cells. And he hasn’t brought it up in any of the presidential debates.
“It’s not a good sign when you’re running, and nobody can find (your stem cell policies) on the web,” said Sean Morrison, the director of the University’s center for stem cell biology.
The same might be said of Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), another presidential candidate, who has voted in support of but isn’t vocal about stem cell research. His rival Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) on the other hand, has been forthcoming with support.
As for the frontrunners, Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards, all strongly support stem cell research. Morrison, who works directly with embryonic stem cells in his day-to-day research, gave both Clinton and Obama a “two thumbs up.” He said they were among the candidates who not only have a voting record that supports stem cell research but also have a history of action.
The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which Clinton, Obama and 39 other senators co-sponsored, aimed to allow funding for derivation of stem cell lines from human embryonic tissue created in excess of need at fertility clinics, where thousands of day-old zygotes will remain frozen until they are thawed and discarded.
For his part, while he was in the senate, Edwards took some heat from then-Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) after he called for more resources for stem cell research following the death of actor Christopher Reeve, but it didn’t deter him. Today, Edwards says his wife Elizabeth’s cancer is a driving force behind his support of the issue.
Mark Prince, the chief of the otolaryngology section for the Veteran’s Affairs Ann Arbor Health Care System and who works with non-embryonic cancer stem cells, said that from his understanding of Clinton and Obama’s platforms, he thought they had a pretty good understanding of the issue – a critical qualification for making decisions about it.
Morrison couldn’t say the same of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). Kucinich, running for the second time, also co-sponsored the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, but Morrison found flaws in Kucinich’s position against therapeutic cloning. The term therapeutic cloning describes the process of taking the nucleus out of a somatic cell, which is any bodily cell that’s not a sperm or an egg, and putting that nucleus into an empty human egg cell, which is a cell with the nucleus removed. The cell can then be coaxed to divide into something from which stem cells can be extracted, but Morrison referred to it as a “somatic cell nuclear transfer product,” not an “embryo,” as Kucinich had suggested.
“It’s not clear that anybody in the Kucinich campaign understands the science well enough to be clear about those distinctions,” he said.
Although he’s probably got a better shot than Kucinich, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson isn’t widely thought of as the likely Democratic nominee. He is, however, one of the most progressive candidates in terms of stem cell research. During Richardson’s time as the governor of New Mexico, he developed a state-funded research facility where students at the University of New Mexico could research embryonic stem cells that wouldn’t otherwise be studied because of federal funding restrictions.
“You have to give him credit,” Morrison said. “He’s not only talking about doing it – he’s actually moving forward.”
There is just as much variation on opinions in the Republican camp. Most of the top-tier candidates don’t reject the idea on principle, but they seem to be working hard not to alienate voters of the religious right who do.
For example, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seems to tentatively support stem cell research, though he says he voted against legislation that would fund it because it would have increased taxes. Romney, who has been accused by conservatives of leaning too far left on issues like abortion, which he now says he opposes, is trying to tread a fine line – not exactly opposing research on embryos from fertility clinics that would be destined for the waste bin anyway, but not wholeheartedly endorsing the cause.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is also having a hard time reconciling his views with those of the Republican base. Giuliani’s campaign and public statements about stem cell research contain only vague clues as to what he would do about stem cell policy if elected to office.
“It sounds like he’s being kind of cagey about if he supports it,” Prince said.
Rep. Ron Paul (R–Texas), though, doesn’t beat around the bush. He’s come out and said he voted against the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, not because he is opposed to the actual research, but because he’s opposed to the government’s funding it. This position isn’t unusual for him; Paul is vehemently against the continued funding of most government projects.
Prince said he could understand the appeal of that philosophy, because it has proven hard to get a consensus from the American public. But absent public funding, scientists often have a hard time finding money elsewhere.
“The problem is that it’s hard to get substantial funding from private donors, so the pace would be slowed,” Prince said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frontrunner though his support has been flagging, does support embryonic stem cell research, but mainly for business reasons, he says. McCain says the research is going to happen in other countries regardless whether it happens here, so we may as well get in the competition.
Former Arkansas Governor and presidential contender Mike Huckabee’s doesn’t appear to vehemently oppose stem cell research, but seems fairly content with the status quo.
Huckabee has said that President Bush should be praised for supporting stem cell research more than any other American president in the history of the United States. But while the research has received more attention under Bush than it has under other presidents, no other president has really been given the same opportunity and lack of resources continues to hamper the research.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), one of the lesser-known candidates, voted against the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act and co-sponsored the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, which would criminalize efforts toward reproductive cloning.
Hunter also says on his campaign website that he voted in support of the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, which would support the study of stem cells taken from human matter besides embryos, sometimes called adult stem cells, but Morrison still rated him “two thumbs down.”
The act, which Morrison called a “sham,” failed once it reached the Senate in 2006. It would have furthered the funding of adult stem cell research, but sufficient funds already exist and it is relatively unbound by few governmental restraints.
“It would have been like passing a bill that allows owning dogs,” Morrison said.
As far as Sam Brownback goes, “he is one of the main sources of misinformation on Capitol Hill related to stem cell research,” Morrison said. “His positions are very difficult to reconcile with the facts.”
Some politicians think they’re taking the safe route by only stating approval for adult stem cells and dismissing embryonic stem cell research, but Morrison said it wasn’t a reasonable alternative.
“It’s like asking whether carpenters should use hammers or screwdrivers,” Morrison said. “I don’t know any stem cell biologists who say they prefer one over the other.”
And finally there’s Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), an old-fashioned man who takes an old-fashioned pro-life stance on stem cell research. He believes in the sanctity of all human life, even if that life isn’t exactly living. The point is, he says, it could be someday if it were to be implanted in a woman’s uterus. Morrison said he found this to be a bizarre idea, taking into account the more than 400,000 frozen embryos that exist in fertility clinics.
“Does that mean that these embryos have a right to implant in somebody’s uterus?” he said. “Who do we hold at gunpoint and force to have those embryos implanted?”
Not even the scientists, though, think there should be zero restrictions on fields as sensitive as stem cell research. Now more than ever, researchers must tackle the questions of what exactly constitutes human life, and to what extent it’s acceptable to create and destroy it. And as most Republicans would tell you, giving anyone free reign to conduct research on humans, even embryos, raises the moral hackles of the populace – maybe rightly so.
“I think it’s the type of research that needs to be tightly regulated with close oversight to make sure (researchers) are not doing anything unethical or immoral,” Prince said. “But I guess that’s true of all research, in a way.”