House Embryonic Stem Cell Research Advocates Torpedoed Bill With Lies

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 19, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

House Embryonic Stem Cell Research Advocates Torpedoed Bill With Lies Email this article
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by Rich Doerflinger
July 19, 2006 Note: Rich Doerflinger is deputy director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It all seemed so reasonable and straightforward. Congress’s warring factions in the stem-cell debate had agreed on a civilized plan for moving the issue forward. The U.S. Senate would vote on three bills: the bill to fund stem-cell research requiring the destruction of human embryos, already approved by the House last year; a bill to ban the use of fetal tissue from “fetus farming” (implanting human embryos in human or animal wombs in order to develop them further and harvest their body parts); and a bill to fund “alternative” avenues for obtaining versatile stem cells without destroying human embryos.

President Bush said he would veto the embryonic-stem-cell bill and sign the other two — and then both sides in the debate would make their case to voters during the midterm elections.

Unexpectedly, the fly in the ointment emerged in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, after the Senate had unanimously approved the “fetus farming” and “alternatives” bills. Representatives Mike Castle and Diane DeGette, House sponsors of the embryo destruction bill, mounted a last-minute campaign against the “alternatives” bill, managing to sway or confuse enough House members that the bill narrowly failed to achieve the two-thirds support needed for approval on the suspension calendar. At this writing it is unclear how soon the House will manage to bring the bill back for consideration under regular rules, to be approved by a straight majority vote.

Whatever the final legislative outcome, this frontal attack on non-embryonic-stem-cell research is very revealing. Supporters of embryonic-stem-cell research until now have said they agree with the National Institutes of Health and most scientific groups that they simply support “funding every avenue” of stem-cell research. Now some are actively attacking any way to do pluripotent-stem-cell research that does not destroy embryos, as though creating this moral problem were an end in itself. This is exactly the opposite of the view of the American people, who, when asked, generally want to exhaust all avenues of research that are not destructive before considering any that are.

Shortly before the vote Tuesday, Rep. Castle circulated an alert to colleagues making a number of invalid arguments against H.R. 5526, the “alternative stem cells” bill. Here are his claims, followed in each case by the facts:

Claim: The bill “mandates the National Institutes of Health to support highly speculative research, some of which has been deemed unethical by the President’s own Bioethics Council and this mandated research may violate current law because embryos will be destroyed with federal dollars.”

Fact: Each part of this claim is false. The bill does not mandate “highly speculative” research (in fact, unlike Rep. Castle’s own embryonic-stem-cell bill, it explicitly prioritizes “research with the greatest potential for near-term clinical benefit”). It strictly adheres to current law in excluding any research that uses or harms embryos, and even references the definition of “human embryo” contained in current law. And it says nothing about the president’s council except that the NIH will “take into account” (that is, take a look at) techniques outlined by the council, within the bounds of the clear policy standard set forth in the bill.

Claim: The bill “takes focus away from advancing cures through federally funded embryonic-stem-cell research from excess IVF embryos.”

Fact: In other words, it is another way to advance those cures, which all supporters of embryonic-stem-cell research claimed to support as well — until now. This is a very strange argument, when all supporters of ESC research in the Senate just voted to support this bill. Have Senators Specter, Hatch, and Harkin lost “focus”?

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