Senate Democrats

President Bush Blocks Legislation to Advance Stem Cell Research…Again

On June 20, President Bush vetoed S.5, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, for the second time blocking legislation to advance research on embryonic stem cells.  Both S.5 and the stem cell legislation vetoed by the President in the last Congress were approved by bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate, with nearly unanimous support from Democrats and the support of lawmakers on both sides of the abortion debate.  The overwhelming majority of Americans support the legislation, as do major medical and scientific associations, research universities and institutions, and dozens of patient advocacy organizations representing millions of Americans. 

If enacted, S.5 would expand federally-funded research on embryonic stem cells, which have the unique ability to develop into virtually every cell and tissue in the body.  Harnessing this ability could one day enable researchers to grow customized cells and tissue capable of repairing damaged or diseased organs.  Yet the great promise of human embryonic stem cell research is being stymied by President Bush’s stem cell policy.  Under this policy, federal research funds can be used on only a small number of existing embryonic stem cell lines, excluding newer and more promising stem cell lines from federal research funds.  These limitations are slowing progress on research and setting major obstacles on the path to developing new therapies. 

President Bush’s Misguided Policy is Impeding Researchers’ Efforts to Find Life-Saving Treatments

President Bush’s stem cell policy is impeding embryonic stem cell research and the search for cures.  Under the President’s stem cell policy, federal funds cannot be used to support research on embryonic stem cell lines derived after August 9, 2001.  Fewer stem cell lines meet this criterion than the Bush Administration once claimed. The lines that do meet the cutoff date are contaminated with mouse cells, and many are becoming unstable.  National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials report that fewer than 10 of the eligible lines are healthy enough to be used on a regular basis.  Moreover, scientists have had difficulty gaining access to the few eligible stem cell lines, and their very limited number has hindered research progress. 

The President’s policy also creates tremendous financial and administrative burdens on states and research institutions, including universities across the country, that receive federal funding and wish to pursue research on newer stem cell lines.  These institutions are forced to waste valuable time and resources on duplicative infrastructure and equipment, as well as training, to avoid using federally-funded buildings and equipment to conduct research on ineligible stem cell lines.  Research has shown that the vast majority of state funding for stem cell research has gone to building infrastructure, purchasing equipment, and training scientists – not to actual research.

The Bush Administration’s misguided policy hurts our nation’s competitiveness and hinders international research efforts.   Many countries have fewer restrictions on embryonic stem cell research than the United States.  We cannot compete globally without the full support of the federal government, which is the primary source of funds for basic biomedical research.  Other sources of funding, such as private and state-based funding, are beneficial, but they cannot compensate for the current limits on federally-funded research. 

Moreover, the Administration’s restrictive policy hinders international research by making it harder for U.S. and foreign scientists to collaborate.  While the United States has traditionally been an important research hub, the federal stem cell policy makes it difficult for the United States to work with other countries, where scientists are using newer lines that are ineligible for federal funding.  The federal government should be supporting and encouraging our scientists, not impeding their efforts to find life-saving cures.      

Adult stem cell research is not enough.  President Bush and some Republicans claim that adult stem cell research is more promising than embryonic stem cell research, particularly because embryonic stem cell research has not yet led to any human therapies.  The great majority of scientists, including the current and former NIH directors, believe that the United States should pursue research on both embryonic and adult stem cells.  Adult stem cells have been found in only a few tissues and are not pluripotent – that is, they do not have the intrinsic ability to generate all other types of tissue.  While adult stem cells are used in some treatments, primarily with blood diseases, it’s important to note that adult stem cell research has had about a 30-year head start on embryonic stem cell research.  (Human embryonic stem cell lines were first derived in 1998, and the first federal grant for embryonic stem cell research was not awarded until 2002.)   

Alternative methods for deriving stem cells are not a substitute for embryonic stem cells.  Some suggest that no change in the President’s policy is needed because scientists will eventually discover ways to obtain embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo.  While the development of alternative sources of stem cells would be welcome, this area of research is only in its earliest stages and is fraught with uncertainty.  Meanwhile, the current method for deriving stem cells – using embryos that would otherwise have been discarded as medical waste – can be used today by researchers in the pursuit of curing diseases.  This method has produced an estimated 400 stem cell lines worldwide, the great majority of which are off-limits to federally-funded scientists.   The possibility that science may one day discover alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells should not be used as a justification for continuing the President’s restrictions on stem cell research.      

Recently-published studies on stem cells derived from skin cells do not eliminate the need for embryonic stem cell research.  Scientists have recently succeeded in reprogramming ordinary skin cells in mice to so that they are virtually indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells.  This research is very promising and certainly worthy of additional exploration and funding.  Unfortunately, the Bush Administration and other opponents of embryonic stem cell research tout these studies as obviating the need for embryonic stem cell research.  It is important to note that these studies were conducted on mice, and scientists do not know whether the technique will ever work in humans.  Even the scientists responsible for these studies agree that the development of alternative sources of stem cells is a worthwhile pursuit as a complement to, but not as substitute for, existing mechanisms for generating embryonic stem cells.  We need to do all we can to help the millions of Americans who suffer from diseases or conditions that could be treated with therapies generated by stem cell research; they cannot afford to wait decades for an alternative approach that may never pan out.    

President Bush’s new executive order is meaningless.  In an attempt to portray himself as supportive of research into regenerative medicine despite his veto of S.5, President Bush issued an executive order, allegedly to promote research into alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells.  The order merely directs the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to support research into alternative sources of stem cells and develop a plan for doing so.  The order provides no additional funding for this research, and takes no real steps to broaden research efforts.  The Bush Administration has stated that a primary purpose of the order is to ensure that research into alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells is eligible for federal funding.  In fact, nothing under existing law precludes federal funding of research into alternative sources of stem cells, and this research has been conducted with NIH funding for years.  Advocates for embryonic stem cell research merely want embryonic stem cell research to be able to vie for public funding like all other research. 

Legislation to Advance Embryonic Stem Cell Research Offers Real Hope to Millions of Americans

S.5 would support research on embryos that would otherwise be discarded.  An important potential source of embryonic stem cells that is not now eligible for federally-funded research are embryos stored in fertility clinics.  The process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) typically produces more embryos than are needed for fertility treatments.  Approximately 400,000 frozen embryos that are left over from IVF treatments are now stored in fertility clinics in the United States.  Most of these frozen embryos will eventually be destroyed.  S.5 would enable these frozen embryos to be donated for embryonic stem cell research that is eligible for federal research funds; stem cell lines derived from these frozen embryos would only be eligible for federal research funds if the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded.

S.5 would impose ethical rules on stem cell research that are stricter than the President’s policy.  In addition to requiring that federally-funded research could only be conducted on stem cell lines from embryos that would otherwise be discarded, S.5 would also require that the individuals who donated the embryos provided their written informed consent to the donation and did not receive any financial or other inducements for making the donation.  The President’s current policy does not include these requirements.  In fact, some of the stem cell lines that are currently eligible for federally-funded research may not even meet the strict guidelines in S.5.

S.5addresses President Bush’s primary concern about embryonic stem cell research.  President Bush has emphasized that there is one line he will not cross on the stem cell issue:  he will not support allowing federal taxpayer dollars to be used to destroy human embryos.  As the primary reason for vetoing S.5, the President asserts that the legislation would, “compel American taxpayers – for the first time in our history – to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos.”  This statement is simply false.  S.5 was carefully crafted not to cross this line.  Pursuant to the Dickey-Wicker amendment that is attached to the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill each year, federal funds may not be used to destroy human embryos.  The Dickey-Wicker amendment does not preclude the use of federal funds to study stem cell lines that were derived from human embryos — as contemplated by S.5 and as currently permitted under the President’s policy — but the derivation process itself cannot be paid for with any federal money.  S.5 would not alter the existing prohibition on the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos.  

S.5 differs from the bill the President vetoed last year in that it includes provisions that the President has supported.  In addition to expanding the number of human embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federally-funded research, S.5 would also promote research into finding alternative ways to derive stem cells that do not involve the destruction of an embryo.  Specifically, the bill includes the text of last year’s Specter-Santorum bill which the President endorsed.  Because our government should do everything it can to develop treatments and cures to help those who are suffering,

S.5 would promote all ethical forms of stem cell research without prejudging which ones will prove most effective.   

Democrats Will Not Let the President’s Policy Stand

President Bush’s veto denies hope to millions of Americans.  S.5 would merely support use of embryos that would otherwise be discarded to create stem cell lines, subject to strict ethical guidelines, that could one day cure diseases and save lives.  The President and other opponents of stem cell research base their opposition on their valuing human life.  But as between discarding embryos versus using them to ease the suffering of millions of people, it is clearly the latter approach that values human life. 

Democrats will continue to fight to expand federally-funded embryonic stem cell research.  More than 100 million Americans suffer from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune disorders, spinal cord injuries, and other debilitating diseases and conditions.  Embryonic stem cell research offers these people and their families hope for better treatments and cures.  The President’s veto is a devastating setback for them. 

That is why the Senate will attempt to override the President’s veto.  And that is why leaders of the Senate Labor-Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee have included a provision in their 2008 spending bill to allow federally-funded research on hundreds of additional embryonic stem cell lines and tighten the ethical guidelines on this research.  Specifically, the provision would extend the cut-off date for federal funding eligibility from August 9, 2001 in the President’s policy to June 15, 2007, while adding the ethical guidelines from S.5.  Importantly, Senators do not view this measure as a substitute for the broader provisions in S.5; rather, it is deemed an incremental solution to advance scientific progress toward treatments and cures in the short term, while the Senate works to override the President’s veto of S.5.  Democrats will continue to fight to expand President Bush’s misguided policy – keeping hope alive for the millions of Americans who stand to benefit from stem cell research. 

For more information on this issue, see the DPC Fact Sheet entitled, “NIH Director Agrees that Federally Funded Scientists Should Have Access to New Embryonic Stem Cell Lines.”