In stem-cell debate, a culture war

Bush is to decide soon whether the US should fund research in this new, and controversial, area of science.

Sudden, intense pressure from all points of the political spectrum has made George W. Bush's upcoming decision on whether the US should fund stem-cell research one of the most difficult domestic decisions he has yet faced as president.

It is an issue suffused with emotion. Those who favor an all-out push in this new area of science believe it could help combat some of mankind's worst medical problems. Opponents emphasize that human embryos are destroyed to obtain the most promising type of stem cell - a trade-off they call tantamount to murder.

The administration may be searching for a compromise position. But avoiding controversy could be impossible, given that the stem-cell debate is increasingly a proxy for the broad science-versus-religion arguments that have long swirled about abortion and other morally charged issues.

The stem-cell battle is a case where "otherwise unfocused energies have rushed in and turned it into a referendum for the culture war," says David Murray, director of the Statistical Assessment Service, a group that analyzes public debate about scientific issues.

In the media, the stem-cell debate is often characterized as a clash of specific theologies: the religious right versus medical researchers.

Yet not all the religious opposition to stem-cell work comes from the Christian right, and not all those on the Christian right are opposed to the research.

Fervent pro-life politicians, such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, are among stem-cell research's most impassioned boosters.

Meanwhile, some - though not many - medical researchers oppose the work. And there are different methods of pursuing stem-cell research, each with its own moral implications.

The glare of public political debate tends to bleach such gray areas away. As a result, the nation may lose a chance to have a public debate about aspects of bioethics that future scientific advances will only re-raise, notes Mr. Murray.

Are embryos people? Does medical benefit for the many outweigh harm to a few? What is a person, anyway?

"To simply cast this as pro-life zealots versus the sciences is to so distort the complexities that we are facing that we will probably miss an opportunity to provide some clarity," says Murray.

At issue for President Bush is a deceptively narrow question: Should the federal government bestow grants on medical researchers working in the stem-cell research field?

Stem cells, to science, are fundamental building blocks of the body. They are raw material that, as they age, develop into more specialized bone, skin, or organ cells.

They were first isolated only in the late 1990s. They have caused great excitement in the medical research field, as many scientists hope they will be able to coax the cells to grow into whatever they want, providing a means to rejuvenate or replace ailing cells.

Stem cells can be obtained from adults. But the stem cells that most researchers consider most promising come from embryos. And in obtaining these cells, the embryo is destroyed.

Scientists argue that most of the embryos at issue are destined to be destroyed, anyway. They are the byproduct of medical fertility efforts - leftovers destined to never be implanted in a womb.

The issue is thus not exactly analogous to abortion. But the issues, say opponents, are similar.

"The federal government cannot morally look the other way with respect to the destruction of human embryos," said a July 2 statement issued by House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas and other House Republicans.

Current law bans use of tax dollars on any research that destroys embryos. Under the Clinton administration, however, the law was interpreted to allow research on stem cells that were obtained, to begin with, using private funds.

It is this policy which Bush will decide whether to accept or reject. Asked at a recent public opinion when he would do so, he said simply, "in a while."

During the campaign, Bush vowed he would oppose embryonic stem-cell research. But since then he has been buffetted by strong opinions on both sides of the question.

The Republican Party is not monolithic on the matter. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, as well as Sen. Hatch, have publicly urged Bush to reconsider his campaign promise.

Nor are the president's advisers thought to be of one mind. Chief political strategist Karl Rove has long pressed for curbs on stem-cell research as popular with an important slice of the electorate: Roman Catholics.

But Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, who is Catholic, is reportedly a strong advocate of allowing at least some use of US money for stem-cell work.

And sliding polls have made many of the president's advisers sensitive to decisions that can be used to further portray Bush as a captive of the religious right.

One compromise approach might be to allow federal funds to be used to work with stem cells "grown" from already-existing ones. Use of tax money to harvest new such stem-cell "lines" would be banned.

Another approach might be to ban federally funded embryonic stem-cell research, while increasing funds for study on stem cells harvested from adults.

But the problem, from a political point of view, is that this is an issue that does not lend itself to compromise. Proponents of both sides tend to believe not just that they are correct, but that they are right, in a moral sense.

Medical researchers have reacted strongly to hints that the administration might allow federal funds to be used only on previously obtained stem cells, for instance. Many say such a decision would inhibit their research and delay the day when it can produce important cures.

Such limits "would effectively end the ability of [federally funded] scientists to contribute to meaningful stem-cell research," said Gerald Fischbach, executive vice president for health sciences at Columbia University, in a statement distributed in Washington by a pro-research lobby.

Congress may end up the ultimate arbiter. The Senate is already considering legislation to allow federal funds to be used for stem-cell work - and Sen. Hatch, among others, says the bill is popular enough to win a veto-proof 60 votes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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