Stem cell decoy

December 27, 2005

Leverage is a vital commodity in Congress, and lawmakers are reluctant to give it up without getting something in return. Thus, it was a bit of a sacrifice as well as a leap of faith for Sen. Tom Harkin to step out of the way and allow enactment last week of legislation that purports to expand the availability to patients of stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

The Iowa Democrat had no objection to the measure, which passed almost unanimously before it was signed into law by President Bush. But the senator and others had held it up for months as a tactic to pressure Republican leaders to allow a vote on more-controversial legislation that would lift Mr. Bush's restrictions on the use of federal funds for research on embryonic stem cells. Mr. Harkin finally yielded on the strength of a promise from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to schedule the embryonic stem cell debate at an unspecified time early next year.

He made the right decision; the cord blood bill accomplishes little and had become a distraction. Senator Frist, who has been promising a debate on the larger issue since last spring, should quickly make good on his word when the Senate returns in January from its holiday adjournment.

At stake, of course, is the enormous potential of stem cell therapy to treat or cure a wide variety of ailments as well as the wherewithal of American scientists to stay on the cutting edge of research without federal government backing.

Mr. Bush sharply limited federal dollars for research on embryonic stem cells because it requires the destruction of a living embryo. A measure approved last spring by the House sought to allay such concerns by specifying that only embryos left over from the in vitro fertilization process could be used.

Senator Frist, a medical doctor, declared himself in support of that legislation in August, just as Congress was leaving Washington for a month-long summer recess. But he never followed through on promises to bring the measure up for a vote in the fall.

Meanwhile, the cord blood measure has served as something of a decoy. It would formally establish an existing databank to help match patients who need a stem cell transplant, and authorize $79 million to increase the number of blood units available for matches. But a separate measure that actually doles out federal money cuts spending for the cord blood bank and other social programs by 1 percent.

So congratulations to Congress are not yet in order for any real advancement on the stem cell issue. But patients eager for progress could give Senator Harkin the leverage he needs to demand a vote.

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