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Bush vetoes stem cell bill while claiming to support 'scientific breakthroughs'

Published July 22, 2006 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After 5 1/2 years and more than 140 veto threats, President Bush finally found something he couldn't tolerate: embryonic stem cell research. Bush used the first veto of his presidency to block a bill that would have permitted federal funding for embryonic stem cells.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, passed by both the Senate and the House, would have allowed federal funding for research using stem cell lines derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments. According to some estimates, there are as many as 400,000 excess embryos frozen in U.S. fertility clinics. The vast majority of these spare embryos will simply be tossed out unless they are used for stem cell research.

Bush says these "human embryos" are not "spare parts" and should be treated as human life. However, millions of viable human embryos each year produced via normal conception fail to implant and never develop further. Does this mean America is suffering a veritable holocaust of innocent human life annihilated?

Culturally we do not mourn the deaths of these millions of embryos as we would the death of a child because we know that these embryos are not people. Try this thought experiment. A fire breaks out in a fertility clinic and you have a choice: You can save a 3-year-old child or a Petri dish containing 10 7-day-old embryos. Which do you choose to rescue?

Bluntly, President Bush's veto will save no embryos, but it may well delay the development of treatments that could save the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

There are three sources for stem cells: embryos, adult tissues and umbilical cords. Adult stem cells and umbilical cord stem cells have already been successfully used in treatments. However, most researchers believe that stem cells derived from embryos hold more long-term promise for developing cures and transplantable tissues. Numerous polls show more than two-thirds of Americans support stem cell research because they accept the claims of researchers that stem cells may well be used to produce transplantable tissues and cells to heal damaged hearts, cure diabetes, alleviate Parkinson's disease and repair broken spinal cords.

Bush and conservative Republicans recognize they are on the wrong side of science and public opinion. So Karl Rove and company have come up with an election-year smokescreen. To help Republicans running for re-election on the politically untenable position of opposing biomedical research that a substantial majority of Americans support, Bush is using two other stem cell bills to mislead constituents about where conservative Republicans really stand. Opponents of stem cell research, like Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., calculate that their support for these bills will enable them to say - with fingers crossed and a half-way straight face, "I voted for stem cell research."

One of the two deceptive bills, the Fetal Farming Prohibition Act, was introduced by Santorum and Brownback and signed by Bush. That act outlaws using tissues from human fetuses that were "deliberately initiated to provide such tissue(s)" or from human fetuses that were "gestated in the uterus of a nonhuman animal."

Sounds yucky, right? Of course, that's the point. They hope to make voters queasy about embryonic stem cell research by falsely linking it to an idea many people find repugnant. In reality, no researchers have proposed going forward with deriving tissues in this way. Outlawing fetal farming is purely about political science, not real science.

The other misleading bill, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, directs the National Institutes of Health to support basic and applied research to develop stem cells derived from adult tissues and umbilical cords. However, the NIH already spends $200 million on such research each year. Basically the bill directs the NIH to do what it is already doing. The only purpose of the bill is to fool voters into thinking that embryonic stem cell research opponents in Congress are "doing something" about encouraging stem cell cures when in fact they are vetoing and standing in the way of research that could lead to new treatments.

Bush and the conservatives in Congress have severely miscalculated this issue. By trying to block promising medical research that could cure millions, they are on the wrong side of history, a point that American voters may make clear at the ballot box this November.

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Ronald Bailey is science correspondent at Reason magazine (http://www.reason.com" Target="_BLANK">http://www.reason.com and author of the book "Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution" (Prometheus Books). He can be reached at rbailey@reason.com" Target="_BLANK">rbailey@reason.com.