The Frontal Cortex

The Stem Cell Debate of 2007

So we lost the stem cell battle this year. Moral self-righteousness once again defeated pragmatic common sense. Of course, important political progress was made: Congress supported science, and Bush was forced to veto a popular bill.

So what should we do next year? I think one important argument for the pro-stem cell side was missing from this debate. If Bush and Brownback are really serious about preventing “immoral” embryo research, then it’s now clear that the federal government must become involved. Back in August 2001, when Bush originally proposed his stem cell “compromise,” he assumed that by denying researchers NIH money he could effectively block a controversial avenue of research. He was wrong.

Five years later, it’s now clear that stem cell research is continuing, and not only in California and Cambridge. Unfortunately, the field remains fragmented, and some of the most important research is being done by private companies. It seems to me that if Bush was really concerned about the murky ethics of stem cells (and I think there are reasons to be concerned), then he should want the federal government to monitor the science.

What would this entail? I think Britain provides us with an excellent model. As I noted in an article for the MIT Technology Review last year:

The centerpiece of the British plan is a national stem cell bank, launched in September 2002. Based in South Mimms, a suburb of London, the bank is designed to serve as a clearinghouse for all British stem cells, vouching for their genetic stability, cultivating large standardized stocks, and ensuring their ethical use. Before U.K. scientists may even attempt to derive human embryonic stem cell lines, they must secure a government license. Furthermore, the terms of governmental funding require that scientists deposit their cell lines in the bank, so other researchers can work with them as well. The bank distributes the cells free of charge under the strict supervision of a motley panel of scientists, civil servants, and ethicists.

Heike Weber, program manager at the U.K. Medical Research Council, the bank’s main funder, explains the philosophy behind the bank’s processes: “Stem cells are a public resource. We need to make sure that this research is done in an ethical manner and that once the lines are created, they are made available to other researchers. If you let private money get involved, then pretty soon you’re going to have companies that don’t want to share their lines, and you end up destroying a lot more embryos.”

Unfortunately, Bush’s current stem cell policy ends up causing the unnecessary destruction of embryos. Furthermore, we have no way of ensuring that these stem cells are being used for research that serves the public interest. If Bush and his supporters really cared about “protecting the dignity of human life,” then they would follow the lead of Britain, and realize that protection requires regulation.