TOPICS > Politics

President Bush Threatens to Veto Stem Cell Bill

July 17, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

SUSAN DENTZER, NewsHour Health Correspondent: Today’s debate over embryonic stem-cell research was kicked off by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. He broke with President Bush over the issue last year.

SEN. BILL FRIST, R-Tenn., Senate Majority Leader: Many of my colleagues have, like me, spent hours grappling with these issues: the future of stem-cell research; how we balance pro-life positions with the potential for new life and health offered by stem-cell research.

But I’ve come to realize we must participate in defining research surrounding the culture of life; if not, it will define us.

SUSAN DENTZER: Frist and others, mostly Democrats and moderate Republicans, are backing a measure passed by the House of Representatives last year. It would allow taxpayer dollars to be used for scientific work on potentially hundreds of new stem-cell colonies, created from embryos left over from fertility treatments.

But President Bush has repeatedly vowed to veto any change in his existing policy.

In 2001, he announced that federal funds could only be used for research on 22 authorized stem-cell colonies created five or more years ago. Many conservatives, including Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas, support the president’s restriction. They contend that destroying anymore embryos to extract stem cells would be immoral.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), Kansas: What we’re talking about in this debate is the use of embryos, young humans, as raw material, raw material in research, raw material to exploit, raw material. It is unnecessary to do.

SUSAN DENTZER: But Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin supports the proposed change in federal policy. Today he stressed the potential from expanding research on embryonic stem cells, prototype cells derived from dot-sized, several-day-old embryos that ultimately develop into all of the different cells and tissues of the human body.

SEN. TOM HARKIN (D), Iowa: Embryonic stem-cell research offers real hope, real hope for people with Lou Gehrig’s disease; real hope for people with Parkinson’s; real hope for people who suffer from autoimmune diseases, like Lupus.

SUSAN DENTZER: Two other bills are also under consideration in the Senate this week. One would ban so-called “fetal farming”; that is, acquiring tissue from a human embryo or fetus solely created for that purpose or from one grown in another animal.

The other measure would increase federally funded research on other types of stem cells not derived from embryos. Supporters like Brownback say these, too, could lead to new cures and treatments.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: If we had taken the half a billion dollars, $500 million that we have invested in embryonic stem-cell research in animals and humans and invested that instead in adult stem-cell research and cord-blood research, we would have a lot more people in clinical trials today. We would have a lot more people, I believe, being cured.

SUSAN DENTZER: The Senate is expected to wind up debate and pass all three bills tomorrow. To override the president’s promised veto of a change in policy, both chambers would need to muster a two-thirds majority.

Advancement after five years

Robert George
Princeton University
At the end of the day, nothing will change. The bill will pass the Senate as it passed the House. The president will veto the bill...which means that the veto will be sustained and things will remain as they are.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez takes it from there.

RAY SUAREZ: And we get two views. Robert George advises the president on stem cells as a member of his Council on Bioethics. He's also a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.

And Alta Charo is a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She's currently a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley Law School.

And, Professor Charo, let me begin with you. What does the bill at the center of today's debate, H.R. 810, allow that the old bill, passed in 2001, did not?

ALTA CHARO, University of Wisconsin: H.R. 810 would allow researchers to use federal money to work with embryonic stem-cell lines that are developed from embryos currently being discarded at the conclusion of reproductive efforts at IVF clinics.

Now, that research is currently possible with private funding, but federal funding completely overwhelms the availability of private funding in the United States. The lack of federal funding has certainly been an obstacle to expanding this field.

The newer lines often have different characteristics than the old lines eligible for federal funds. They have different genetic make-up; some of them have customized genetic characteristics. And so they offer entirely lines of research for genetic diseases, as well as the more traditional transplant research that embryonic stem-cell therapy offers.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor George, you just heard Professor Charo call the 2001 plan an "obstacle." Do you think it worked the way it was intended?

ROBERT GEORGE, Princeton University: Yes, I believe that it did work the way it was intended. It was intended to prevent any encouraging of further embryo-killing. It was meant to ensure that there was a moral boundary against the taking of human life in the cause of advancing research.

I believe now we're in a situation where we're going to have a vote which will represent symbolic politics. On one side of the equation will be people who want to cast a vote to make clear that they believe that the type of research done with embryonic stem cells is so important that it justifies embryo-killing, as regrettable as that is.

On the other side are people who want to make the statement that they believe the moral boundary against taking human life in biomedical science must remain in place.

But at the end of the day, nothing will change. The bill will pass the Senate as it passed the House. The president will veto the bill. He has sufficient support in the House -- we don't know yet about the Senate -- sufficient support in the House to sustain a veto, which means that the veto will be sustained and things will remain as they are.

And that means the real story of this week will be the two other bills that were mentioned in your set-up, that is the bill funding alternative sources of embryonic-type stem cells, or pluripotent stem cells, and the bill that's putting a prohibition on fetus-farming on the gestating of fetuses to be used -- destroyed and used in biomedical research.

The paths towards a cure

Alta Charo
University of Wisconsin-Madison
The federal government currently has all the authority and all the funding it needs to look for every other source of stem-cell research that might yield patient cures.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mention the two other bills, Professor George. Do they build in some guarantees that some of the abuses threatened by the current bill's opponents worry about? Would they build some fences in around expanded stem-cell research?

ROBERT GEORGE: No, well, I'm not sure what you mean by the fences in these cases. Perhaps you could be more specific. But let me say that what they would do is fund types of research that all Americans should in good conscience be able to applaud.

This really will end up being a very great week for bioethics and a great week for the nation, because what's going to happen is science is going to be to put to work on a major scale in solving the ethical dilemma that has divided us.

This is very divisive. There are good people on both sides of this. People are very earnest, and they're very concerned on both sides. What this bill will do is make money available for a solution to the ethical problem, to get around the ethical impasse by letting scientists go to work at producing the types of stem cells that embryonic stem-cell scientists want but without the destruction of embryos, which means that everyone can win in this and everyone can applaud.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Charo, a great week for bioethics?

ALTA CHARO: Well, I have to say I don't agree with Professor George's characterization of what's going on with the other two bills. First of all, the federal government currently has all the authority and all the funding it needs to look for every other source of stem-cell research that might yield patient cures.

Jim Battey of the National Institutes of Health, testifying on behalf of this administration's own Department of Health and Human Services, said two weeks ago that they don't need new legislation to pursue this research, and they are in fact pursuing it, as well as adult stem-cell research.

The fetal-farming bill is simply a bill to prohibit something that nobody has ever proposed to do, nobody wants to do, and nobody is doing. So to that extent, I agree that it's completely symbolic.

But the most important symbol here, I think, is the symbol of the balance that we are going to strike between patients and embryos. Nobody knows which form of research is going to be the first to pan out and actually produce patient cures that are optimal, effective and affordable.

And opponents of expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research who propose to fund only alternatives that are not yet proven are essentially saying we should gamble with patients' lives and we should hope that one of the alternatives will pan out soon enough that patients do not sicken and die for lack of what might have been, in fact, the cures that could have resulted if we had pursued the embryonic stem-cell research with the vigor that H.R. 810 proposes.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that sounds like it's a core conflict between opponents and detractors. You heard earlier Senator Brownback maintain that, if all the energy that had gone into trying to open up embryonic stem-cell research and, in fact, funded in some states, had been devoted to cord blood and adult stem cells, we would have gotten a lot further over the last five years. Could I get your quick response to that?

ALTA CHARO: Well, in fact, Jim Battey has also testified to the fact that the federal government has over the past few years, since the president's announced policy, been funding adult stem-cell research at a rate of five to one. That is $5 for adult stem-cell research for every dollar spent on the embryonic stem-cell research they do support.

It is not lack of federal funding in the area of adult stem-cell research or lack of authority to fund efforts to find completely different alternatives to embryonic stem-cell research that has slowed down that field. It is simply still struggling through with the science the way the embryonic stem-cell field is, as well.

The question is: Do we pursue everything that we can in the hope of finding cures as quickly as we can for patients, or do we slam the door on one very promising avenue and tell patients to simply cross their fingers and hope that another particular area of research, one that does not offend people who view the embryo as the moral equivalent of a Parkinson's patient, while we wait for those cures to emerge?

Hype or hope?

Robert George
Princeton University
The idea that this is just about IVF spares is a false idea. What this is really about is the next step, which is creating cloned human embryos to be destroyed in research.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor George, you heard Senator Frist earlier in our report. He publicly broke with the president; he said the available lines for stem-cell research now are too narrow and more are needed. And he allowed this debate to go forward.

Have the dynamics both in the House and in the Senate changed underneath our feet since the law was passed in 2001?

ROBERT GEORGE: No, I don't think that the dynamics have changed. We do know some additional facts.

We know that the promise, the hyping of embryonic stem-cell therapies, the idea that cures were just around the corner, even the idea that if the funding faucet were turned on and plenty of federal money flowed into embryonic research the cures would emerge, we now know that that's not true.

We don't know when, if ever, embryonic stem-cell-based therapies will be used. There's not a single stem-cell-based therapy even in clinical trials right now, despite the fact that many patients have been treated successfully for a number of diseases with adult stem-cell therapies.

So we know that an awful lot of hyping went on. A lot of patients' hopes were elevated. And the problem turned out to be not the lack of federal money, but problems fundamentally with embryonic stem cells themselves.

We also know this, and that is the debate over embryonic stem cells, when it comes to IVF spare embryos -- in vitro fertilization spare embryos -- really is a sideshow. Those embryos lack the capabilities that are needed to do the kind of regenerative medicine that embryonic stem-cell scientists want, which means that what this debate is really about is the next step, which is cloning.

That is, creating embryos, custom-making them to be a cloned match to the donor so that then they can be destroyed for the harvesting of stem cells, which can be used without rejection in regenerative medicine.

So the idea that this is just about IVF spares is a false idea. What this is really about is the next step, which is creating cloned human embryos to be destroyed in research.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Charo, let me get to your response to Professor George's last comment and also where you think this does go next. Is there a next step if the president, as he's threatened, vetoes this bill?

ALTA CHARO: Well, first, I do think Professor George is getting out ahead of himself. Most researchers who are interested in pursuing cloning research do so knowing that there is no hope of federal funding ever emerging.

And, second, they do so largely in order to use its potential to explore genetic disease and not to do the customized transplant therapy that Professor George is talking about. And so it is not as compellingly large an area of research as it's being portrayed.

I do think this debate really is about the balance between patients and embryos, given that we know that it is a roll of the dice in all areas of this research, whether adult fetal tissue or embryonic stem cell, which one is going to pan out for patients.

I agree that, if the president vetoes, that there is no immediate change in the funding situation in the United States. It is, however, tremendously important in the local congressional races, in the U.S. Senate races, and individual members are very attentive to their own constituencies.

Many polls -- although we do appreciate that polls can be manipulated -- but many polls suggest that Americans by and large, to about a 70 percent majority, would favor aggressively pursuing all avenues of research for patient cures, even if it means the destruction of doomed embryos.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor Charo, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you, both.

ALTA CHARO: Thank you.