Frist Announces Support for Stem Cell Research
Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate's only physician and a "close ally" of President Bush, yesterday announced his support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research at a Senate subcommittee hearing on the issue, but called for "fairly tight restrictions" on the research, the New York Times reports (Stolberg, New York Times, 7/19). "After grappling with the issue scientifically, ethically and morally, I conclude that both embryonic and adult stem cell research should be federally funded within a carefully regulated, fully transparent framework," Frist told the subcommittee (Weiss/Goldstein, Washington Post, 7/19). To this end, he outlined a 10-point plan that would, among other things, authorize federal financing for five years and establish an ethics panel of "independent advisers to the president" to oversee the research. His plan also included several measures opposed by scientists, such as restricting federally funded embryonic stem cell research to a few types of stem cells, increasing funding for research on adult stem cells and banning the creation of embryos specifically for research. The latter objective comes after two U.S. laboratories -- Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology and the Virginia-based Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicines -- last week announced that they were creating embryos specifically for research purposes through cloning and in vitro fertilization procedures, respectively (New York Times, 7/19). Frist also noted that he does not support legislation (S 723) sponsored by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), which would permit federal dollars to be used for the research but also for the direct destruction of embryos to obtain the stem cells (Washington Post, 7/19). Other stem cell-related legislation includes HR 259, HR 2096 and HR 1608.
As an abortion-rights opponent and "trusted and influential adviser on medical issues" to President Bush, Frist in his support for the research funding may help sway the president's decision on whether to permit federal funding, the Washington Post reports. But the White House responded that Frist's views "would not necessarily carry more influence with the president than those of other members of Congress." Even if Bush decides not to permit federal money for the work, Harkin, chair of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, said yesterday that he believes there may be currently as many as 75 Senate votes in favor of research funding, enough to override a presidential veto of legislation permitting such activity (Washington Post, 7/19).
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Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times today examines the "theological debate" over stem cell funding, noting that senators at yesterday's hearing turned to the Bible "for guidance on whether a human embryo is equivalent to a human life." Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), an abortion opponent who supports research funding, read aloud a passage from Genesis that describes human creation: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." Smith argued the passage implies that cells -- like dust -- give "form to man," but that in order to gain the "breath of life," the cells must be placed in a womb. Under this theory, the Times reports, embryonic cell research would be ethically permissible because the cells would never have been implanted in the womb. But Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called this interpretation "amateur theology," saying, "An embryo's development is directed completely from within -- the womb simply provides a nurturing environment." The Times notes that other theologians believe that an embryo younger than 14 days is not yet a person, reasoning that the soul, "the hallmark of an individual, cannot enter an embryo" while it is still capable of dividing into two, creating twins (Zitner, Los Angeles Times, 7//19).