Thoughts on the Stem Cell Debate

Posted on January 11, 2007 In Blog

Today, the House of Representatives is again considering the issue of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The bipartisan legislation, which passed the House & Senate last year but was subjected to the first veto of the Bush presidency, will allow federal funds to support this research when the embryos utilized are drawn from IVF clinics and would otherwise be destroyed. The OU was the first of the Jewish religious “streams” to endorse this research and its funding after a lengthy policy development process with rabbinic, scientific and other experts.

The 2006 midterm elections have probably brought more supportive votes to congress — possibly enough to get a veto override in the Senate, but still too few in the House. And the President’s position is firm — and, by the way, worth respect for it is both moderate and based on serious moral considerations; after all, there are Republicans who would outlaw this research even if privately funded — President Bush has never taken that position.

So, for those interested in getting legislation through and harnessing the power of the National Institutes of Health to accelerate the saving of lives — as opposed to scoring political points by teeing up vetoes that can’t be overridden — how do you change the game?

Well, an excellent direction was pointed out by Former Senate Majority Leader (and world-class doctor) Bill Frist when he announced his breaking with Bush to support stem cell research in 2005. Frist noted that there is a strict ethical oversight regime in place at NIH for the research conducted on recombinant DNA and other sophisticated biomed research.

It would be good policy — and good politics — to legislate that any federally funded embryonic stem cell research be brought under a similar oversight process. Putting such requirements into the next iteration of stem cell legislation would acknowledge the legitimate ethical concerns of the opponents, would likely attract some additional votes, and possibly — just possibly — draw President Bush into a renewed conversation about the matter.

In this case — where lives are at stake — it’s critical that the best policy not be derailed by politics.