Opting out on stem cells

March 11, 2004

PRESIDENT BUSH'S carefully crafted compromise on stem cell research appears to be defeating his purpose.

By permitting federal funds to be used only for research on existing stem cell lines, the president had hoped to discourage, if not curtail altogether, the creation of human embryos for the sole purpose of experimenting on them.

His goal, announced in August 2001, was to allow the development of potentially lifesaving cures while drawing a moral and ethical line to protect the sanctity of human life. But the trend seems to be headed so far in the opposite direction that the president should reconsider his policy.

His curbs on federally financed research have proved so restrictive that scientists have turned increasingly to private and foreign sources, which are not subject to any regulation. Thus, there effectively are no ethical or moral lines on the method of producing embryonic stem cells - or the uses to which the living matter created is put. Embryos can be created for the purpose of harvesting organs; human beings can be cloned.

The president's policy has been effective only in impeding the research he had intended to foster.

As it turned out, most of the 70 existing stem cell lines he said would be available for federally financed research were not. Some were subject to commercial restrictions; others failed to reproduce. The final tally of available lines may be as low as 15.

U.S. scientists cheered last week when a team from Harvard announced that it had created 17 new stem cell lines with private money and would share them at no charge with other researchers.

But relying almost exclusively on privately financed research discourages the sort of broad, multifaceted scientific inquiry most likely to produce the quickest results, and abandons the government's traditional role as a catalyst for such research.

Beyond that, it denies the government a chance to regulate research in this most controversial of fields.

It's time for Mr. Bush to redraw the line. He could, for example, allow federally financed research on newly created embryonic stem cells, but limit it to those created as a byproduct of in vitro fertilization. Or he could simply impose a ban on the cloning of humans, with which nearly everyone agrees.

Throughout the eons, man has learned it's impossible to hold back science indefinitely. But there are more effective ways to direct its course than the one Mr. Bush has chosen.

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