Congress Poised to Debate Modification to Federal Stem Cell Rules
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JEFFREY BROWN: In 2001, President Bush tried to walk a fine line: Allowing federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells, but only on the so-called stem lines that existed prior to August of that year — ever since those limits have stirred debate. And now there’s a new proposal that could dramatically expand federal funding.
The proposed bill would allow funding for research on stem cells from embryos created at fertility clinics that would not otherwise be used. Opponents of using embryonic stem cells have an alternative bill. It focuses new research on stem cells drawn from umbilical cord blood.
Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, is cosponsor of the first. Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, backs the second approach. Welcome to both of you.
Starting with you, Congresswoman DeGette, could you explain simply how your proposal would work?
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Yes. What our bill does, and it’s a bipartisan bill, it expands the research to embryos that are created for in vitro fertilization clinics, and which are scheduled to be destroyed. It requires strict ethical controls, so there would be informed consent. And it’s supported by a bipartisan group, pro-life and pro-choice.
And by the way, we also support the other bill, the bill for cord blood registry. It’s not in conflict with our bill at all. We believe that we need to have robust scientific exploration. We need to look at adult stem cells, cord blood, and embryonic stem cells. But we shouldn’t be tying the hands of scientists behind their backs while they’re trying to cure diseases that affect millions of Americans like diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, nerve damage. We think our bill is an ethical alternative, which is why we believe we’ve got the votes to pass it tomorrow.
JEFFREY BROWN: So under your bill, prospective parents at these fertility clinics would “OK” the use of the embryos?
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Jeff, what happens is when couples undergo in vitro fertilization techniques, extra embryos that are not needed are created as part of the process. Right now what happens with most of these embryos, they’re just thrown away. And scientists have found that these embryos actually provide the most promise of any of these techniques for research, which will ultimately lead to creation of cures for diabetes and other issues.
So we say if you have informed consent, if these embryos are going to be discarded anyway, why not be able to use them for ethical research that could cure diseases that affect tens of millions of Americans?
JEFFREY BROWN: Congressman Pence, what’s wrong with this as a way of expanding the research?
REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, Jeffrey, as a pro-life American, I believe that life begins at conception. And I believe it’s morally wrong to destroy even embryonic human life for the purpose of research. And — but really that debate, or the potential promise of embryonic stem cell research, which despite what Ms. DeGette says, there’s some real question about — we’ll hear tomorrow on the House floor from many members of Congress who are physicians who genuinely doubt the potential of embryonic stem cell research.
Adult stem cell research has produced 58 treatments. And even though it’s legal in America today, embryonic stem cell research has yet to produce a single treatment in a lab animal. But the debate tomorrow really is about federal funding. Inasmuch as I believe that it’s morally wrong to destroy human embryonic life for the purpose of research, I think it’s also, Jeffrey, additionally morally wrong to take the tax dollars of millions of pro-life Americans and use it to support research that they find morally offensive. And that’s really what the debate is about tomorrow.
When we talk about the consent — and Ms. DeGette is quite sincere in her effort here, and adding informed consent is a logical and in her mind appropriate addition here — but I would ask, where is the consent of the American taxpayer who believes, as I do, as millions do, that life begins at conception? Where is their consent about the use of their tax dollars for this research?
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Pence, what about the argument, though, that Ms. DeGette makes that these embryos would be destroyed in any case?
REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, I have to tell you that when you look at the steady march of human history, including, frankly, some very frightening chapters of the 20th century, the human record is not very encouraging when we come across societies who step across the simple notion that the human life is sacred.
And this business of arguing a utilitarian argument, instead of the larger argument that science ought to always back carefully away where human life is involved, would be the position that I would hold, and that millions of American taxpayers believe today.
JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead, Ms. DeGette.
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Yeah, Jeff, actually, first of all, we’re already using tax money for embryonic stem cell research. It’s just that the president has tied the hands of the researchers by putting artificial political limitations on which lines that we can use.
But secondly, the vast majority of Americans, pro-life and pro-choice, support this research. Recent polls have shown that 60 to 70 percent of Americans support this research. And that’s why many pro-life members of the House, Democrats and Republicans, intend to vote for this bill tomorrow.
A lot of pro-life members of Congress feel like Americans do, which is if these embryos will be discarded anyway, it’s almost like donating the organs of your child who was killed in a car crash. Let’s use them in an ethical way to cure diseases that’ll affect millions of more children.
JEFFREY BROWN: But Ms. DeGette, why not, though, go further, as Mr. Pence suggests, in working on adult stem cells for now?
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Well, unfortunately, Mr. Pence is incorrect. The vast majority of researchers show that embryonic stem cells are much more flexible in making eyelet cells that creates insulin, nerve cells and other types of cells. I think we should look at all the types of research.
Let’s look at adult stem cells which have been effective in some types of treatments, but are not nearly as flexible in many other types of treatments. Let’s look at ethical embryonic stem cell research. Let’s look at all the options, let’s not tie the hands of our researchers and say, “We’re not going to allow you to use these embryos, let’s throw them away instead.” To me, that’s an immoral argument.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Pence -
REP. MIKE PENCE: I have to admit, Jeffrey, to Diana that it may be today that the majority of the American public supports embryonic stem cell research as a principle. I don’t. Millions of Americans don’t. But that may be a majority view. But I think the jury is out on whether or not –
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Why not use the tax dollars –
REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, but I think the jury is out on whether a majority of Americans support using federal tax dollars to fund research that destroys human embryos; that destroys human life. I think when the American people hear the debate on the floor of Congress tomorrow, hear that this is really about using taxpayer dollars to fund the destruction of human life, it may be a different day than some people expect.
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Actually, Americans support for embryonic stem cell research and a federal role has grown dramatically since this president’s executive order in 2001, as Americans realize the potential for curing diseases that affect so many.
JEFFREY BROWN: As you both know, President Bush said on Friday that he would veto this proposal if it passes. Ms. DeGette, first, do you think you have the votes to pass it? And if so, do you have enough to overcome a veto?
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: We do have the votes to pass the bill, we believe, and we think even those on the other side agree. And by the way, all of us are going to also vote for the cord blood bill, because we think all types of research should be explored. It’ll go to the Senate. We’ve got very strong allies in the Senate, including Orrin Hatch who is pro-life, and they’re going to move that forward.
So we’ve got a long way to go. We are going to continue to talk to the Senate and the White House. We think this is something — we know this is supported by the vast majority of Americans, and we hope we can work it out.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Pence, what about the split within your own party? As we just heard, there are some prominent members from your party who are supporting Ms. DeGette’s bill in the House, and then in the Senate as well.
REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, I — none of the elected Republican leadership in the House supports her legislation. There are some honorable members of our majority who support the bill. I think the Majority Leader, Mr. (Tom) DeLay, will play a prominent role in the debate tomorrow. The majority of our majority will oppose this legislation.
As to your larger point about the president’s veto, I was very encouraged, as I know millions of Americans following this debate were encouraged, when President Bush made it crystal clear on Friday that he will veto the (Mike) Castle/DeGette legislation if it authorizes the use of federal dollars to destroy human embryos for research. And I commend the president for that, and I think the president can anticipate that when, not if, but when he vetoes this legislation, we will have the votes in the Congress to sustain that veto.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Mike Pence of Indiana and Diane DeGette of Colorado, thank you very much.
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Great. Thanks for being with you.
REP. MIKE PENCE: Thank you.