Background: Research on human stem cells came to the fore in the 1990s. A stem cell is a cell that contains the ability to reproduce the various kinds of body cells. Medical science is exploring ways that human stem cells could be used to repair damaged body cells and heal diseases. Adult stem cells are already being used as therapies and involve no inherent moral concerns. Research on embryonic stem cells is still speculative in nature and presents serious moral objections.
Since 1996, Congress has prohibited funding research “in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” Despite the plain meaning of the law, the Clinton Administration decided to fund research on stem cells derived from human embryos if the derivation of the cells – and the inevitable killing of the embryos – was done with private funds. On August 25, 2000, funding guidelines for NIH grants were published in the Federal Register.
President Bush did not revoke the guidelines but spent several months conducting a study. On August 9, 2001, President Bush announced his administration’s support for funding research using embryonic stem cell lines already in existence; the use of subsequent cells lines was prohibited.
Legislation: A measure authorizing government support for embryonic stem cell research was pending in committee in the House (H.R. 2059) and in the Senate (S. 723). In these bills, the stem cells can be derived only from embryos obtained through in-vitro fertilization. On September 25, 2002, the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee (Chairman Senator Tom Harkin, D-IA) of the Senate Appropriations Committee held another hearing on stem cell research. Witnesses complained that President Bush’s stem cell guidelines were hampering the progress of research. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) is quoted as saying that he would press Congress to expand the president’s policy. It is time “<to legislate in the field<” but he would confer with other Senators “<before proposing another bill<” (New York Times, 9/26/02, A23).
Also pending before a House committee was the Responsible Stem Cell Research Act (H.R. 2096), which establishes a National Stem Cell Donor Bank through which human stem cells derived in ethical ways can be made available for research and therapy. Adult stem cells are an alternative that is ethical and already producing health benefits for patients. A recent study shows that one particular adult stem cell can turn into every single tissue of the body. “It might turn out to be the most important cell ever discovered.” New Scientist (1/23/02). See: www.stemcellresearch.org. Despite these extraordinary advances, some continue in their attempts to discredit the promise that adult stem cells hold.
Executive: On July 7, 2002, the Chicago Tribune published a story, “U.S.quietly OKs fetal stem cell work.” However, the funded project is in fact covered by the 1993 law, which removed from the president authority to block the funding. On January 22, 1993, President Clinton issued an Executive Order lifting a moratorium on the federal funding of research involving transplantation of fetal tissue obtained from induced abortions. Later in the year Congress passed a law (PL 103-43) approving the funding of such research and in that law forbade any official of the executive branch from imposing a policy that DHHS is prohibited “from conducting or supporting any research on the transplantation of human fetal tissue for therapeutic purposes” (42 USC 289g-1).
Also, on October 1, 2002, the Bush Administration established the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protection. The charter of this committee recognizes for the first time that human embryos in experiments are human subjects along with human fetuses, children and adults. “New Status for Embryos in Research,” Washington Post (10/30/2002). The Secretary’s Advisory Committee is a successor to the National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee that had been set up by President Clinton and expired in September 2002.