U.S. Rep. Diana Degette
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SUSAN DENTZER: Let’s start by talking about what’s wrong in your view with the policy that the President set forth in August of 2001?
REP. DEGETTE: The President’s policy was based on politics rather than science, and as we’ve seen the research develop in the ensuing three years, we can really see what the problem with that is. Instead of the seventy-eight lines that the White House thought were available to researchers, it’s now turned out they only have maybe fifteen to nineteen lines, and those lines are all contaminated with mouse feeder cells, which is going to prove a problem as the research continues. And in addition, the lines don’t have racial diversity, they don’t have genetic defects that would be helpful in researching certain diseases. And so, the policy really is very fraud and in fact is going to stand in the way as research goes forward.
SUSAN DENTZER: The response that one gets say from the head of the NIH and certain others is that those concerns may prove to be concerns down the line prospectively, but right now there are enough lines for people to gain access to. Nobody who’s trying to get lines is having difficulty doing that at the moment, so that the research is progressing and that in fact the science is moving so slowly anyway that we’re not anywhere near the point that we’re going to need lots of new lines, although that may be the case down the road?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, of course, it’s a chicken and egg situation because many of the researchers say that the reason research is moving slowly is because first of all scientists feel inhibited from pursuing stem cell research because of the politics of the White House, and secondly, a lot of researchers would like to work at different lines.
One private researcher, for example, has identified a new line that has a genetic defect that’s going to help with research. So what we’ve done is — is we’ve really stifled the research in its broad applications, in its infancy just when we need to be supporting research.
But you know I met with the White House again this week. I met with Dr. Zerhouni and his staff and what I told them is, by putting these artificial limitations on the research, what they are beginning to do and we are seeing this now, they are beginning to send research into private hands and overseas.
And not only will that take away our cutting edge as the leaders at NIH of research, it also takes away our ability to put ethical controls on how the research is conducted. And this is a very real problem.
SUSAN DENTZER: And what was Dr. Zerhouni’s response?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, I think Dr. Zerhouni and his team understand the point about the ethical considerations, and as a member of his team said, when the President did his executive order, he was concerned about the ethical constraints, he was concerned that we use embryos created for in vitro fertilization, scheduled to be destroyed. He was concerned that we have informed consent from the donors. He was concerned that we’re not creating embryos just for research.
These are concerns that I share, and I think that we need to have a federal policy that not only allows complete funding for all stem cell lines, but also puts strict ethical controls. And the unintended result of the President’s policy has been that for much of this research that’s going overseas and into private hands, we have no controls at all.
SUSAN DENTZER: Which gets us to the bill that you sponsored. Let’s talk about that. What would it do?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, Mike Castle and I have introduced legislation which would allow full federal funding for all stem cell lines from embryos that are created for purposes of in vitro fertilization techniques, and which are scheduled to be destroyed and where there’s informed consent from the donors. So it basically achieves the ethical goals the White House has said they want, it allows unfettered research, it allows us to take back our leadership in this role at the NIH, and it eliminates this artificial political constraint on the research.
SUSAN DENTZER: And as we know there are perhaps several hundred thousand or more of these embryos?
REP. DEGETTE: Absolutely, I mean there are ample embryos to conduct the research. They have racial and ethnic diversity. They have genetic diversity, and as the research moves forward, they’ll be purer lines, so they won’t be based on mouse feeder cells, and they’ll be new. You know, already now many of these lines are three or more years old because the President’s executive order just put a halt to what lines you could use after August 9th, 2001.
SUSAN DENTZER: The opponents of this research say an embryo is an embryo is an embryo. No embryo should be destroyed under any circumstances.
REP. DEGETTE: Well, those proponents then probably don’t believe in in vitro fertilization because these embryos are being created right now for in vitro fertilization techniques and they will be slated to be destroyed because they’re left over from in vitro fertilization.
Even many pro life supporters of stem cell research say isn’t it a greater and better good to take these embryos which are now scheduled to be destroyed and to use them to improve people’s lives.
I mean, stem cell research has the prospect of curing diseases that affect millions and millions of Americans. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Diabetes, nerve cell damage, and many, many more, and I think now Americans understand that and they support it.
One of the pro life supporters of stem cell research said to me, “You know, it’s like if you had a child, and your child was hit by a car and killed. Many parents would want to donate that child’s organs to give the gift of life to another child, and many in vitro fertilization patients would want to donate the leftover embryos to give the promise of life to other Americans.” And I think that there’s a growing consensus in this country among pro life, pro choice, all Americans, that this is a greater good.
SUSAN DENTZER: You have about thirty Republican co-sponsors on your legislation, so this obviously is gaining bipartisan support as well. What do your Republican colleagues who’ve put their names on this bill, what do they say?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, my Republican colleagues feel as I do, that this promising area of research should not be thwarted by a political decision that was made three years ago. We’ve had three years since the executive order to see how the research is progressing, and I think these Republicans agree with me that the research is really not progressing the way we want it to, and also that there is a growing consensus in America that this research is important, and that so long as it’s conducted ethically, that it’s really appropriate and we should do it.
SUSAN DENTZER: There seems zero prospect that this policy will be revisited before the election. What do you think might happen after the election?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, let me say first of all that Mike Castle and I sent a letter to the White House, oh, some weeks ago. We had two hundred and six people sign that letter and that letter was bipartisan. It formed the basis for our legislation.
But as we talked to our colleagues, we found that many more of our colleagues were pro stem cell research and would vote for that research. So we think we have two hundred and thirty, maybe even more votes, which would be enough to pass a bill in the House. And so I’m not convinced that there’s zero chance that it will pass before the election because Congress realizes that this is a very important public good.
So we’re looking towards legislation in September to see if we can take our bill and change it into an amendment, you know, try to find some way to put pressure on the White House.
But the other interesting thing that’s happened since we sent our letter to the White House is that the White House has kept the door open to discussions with me and Mr. Castle and other leaders of the stem cell movement. We’ve met with the White House a couple of times now, including Dr. Zerhouni this week, and we’re continuing to have discussions about how this policy could be changed by the White House and still meet some of the ethical considerations that President Bush has. So you know we’re — hope springs eternal, and the thing we’re concerned about is because the research is in its early stages, we want to nurture that research, not shut it down.
SUSAN DENTZER: And is the door specifically open to this notion of using discarded embryos from fertility treatments?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, that’s the — discarded embryos from fertility treatments is the method now that is being used, and I think the White House is concerned, as we are, about how that, about the ethics around how you conduct that research, how you decide which embryos to use, and so that’s part of the ongoing dialogue that we’re having.
What I told the White House is, I think at the time the President issued his executive order, the President was trying to do the right thing. The research was in its early stages at that time, and there was not a public consensus like there is now.
People didn’t understand what stem cell research was, they didn’t understand what these embryos were. Now the public does understand that, and there’s a growing public consensus that if conducted ethically, stem cell research holds such promise that we should do it. And that’s across party lines, it’s across America, and I think the President could really show leadership by saying look, we tried to do a policy that would meet a lot of demands and be ethical. We’ve now learned a lot of information in the last three years, and so I’m going to modify that policy to allow the expansion, but we have to have strict ethical controls. That would show leadership and thoughtfulness by the President, and I think he should do it.
SUSAN DENTZER: Without getting too much into the technical details, what is it that the White House is concerned about, the way informed consent documents would be structured to allow use of the discarded embryos, what exactly are their concerns?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, I frankly find it hard to understand exactly what the White House concerns are because what they – what they say to me is they’re concerned that additional embryos would be destroyed in this research. But the embryos are scheduled to be destroyed anyway, so it’s hard to understand what the problem is.
If you’re going to be creating this embryo for in vitro fertilization and then destroying it, why, if there was informed consent, you wouldn’t want to take those embryos and use them for research that could cure diseases and help millions of Americans. I don’t understand that.
SUSAN DENTZER: And in fact, research is being conducted on discarded embryos like this all the time?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, research is being conducted on discarded embryos all the time. It’s just not with federal money. And the White House says well, we don’t think it’s an appropriate use of federal money. But the truth is we’re using federal money to conduct research on the lines that existed August 9th, 2001 so why is that OK for that, but not post-August 9th, 2001?
And the other issue, of course, is, since that time there’s a national consensus that federal efforts should be put into this type of research.
So I think if you asked Americans across the country, across age groups, across political affiliations, they would say this is an appropriate use of our research money, and if we don’t do it, not only are we not going to have the power of the NIH and the federal government behind this research, but we’re going to lose that edge to foreign countries and to private researchers.
SUSAN DENTZER: What do you think the impact is of Ronald Reagan Jr. getting up, coming out in favor of this research as of course has his mother, and speaking at the Democratic Convention about it?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, I think the impact of Ron Reagan talking about stem cell research in prime time at the National Convention cannot be underestimated, and more broadly, the support of people like Nancy Reagan for stem cell research. She came out in support of that several weeks before President Reagan died, and it was really powerful. And I also think that it gives Republicans a spokesperson for why it’s OK to talk about stem cell research this way.
We also have many prominent Republicans in Congress like Orin Hatch who supports stem cell research. So I think it’s going to be a very important speech, and it’s really going to highlight the promise of stem cell research for America.
SUSAN DENTZER: I want to come finally back to the prospects of getting a vote on this in the House. Do you think the leadership is ever going to let something like this onto the floor until the White House sends the signal that it’s OK for a change to move forward?
REP. DEGETTE: Well, let me say, the easiest way to fix this problem would be for the President to simply amend his policy, and we continue to have discussions with the White House about that. If the President refuses, then Mike Castle and I are going to explore all legislative options to try to get it to a vote. And we only have one more month of legislation before the election. It may be difficult, which is why we think it would be the easiest for the White House to change the policy.
People ask me all the time, as a Democrat, is this going to become an issue in the election? I don’t think this is an issue that’s a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, but I do think that if the President continues to resist changing the policy in the face of reason, frankly, it will become a political issue, just by example of Ron Reagan giving this speech at the Convention, it shows the Democrats are very concerned about stem cell research. And if the President refuses to change the policy, then I think that that is fair game for the election.
So I’m trying to do this in a bipartisan way. I think it’s the best way for America, but if the White House won’t listen, I think it’s going to be an issue leading up to November.