The View from the Hill: As Labs across the Country Make Discoveries That Heighten the Promise of Stem Cell Research and Raise Public Expectations, a New Congress Is Caught in Them Oral Cross Hairs-Wedged between an Administration's Convictions and the Potential of an Emerging Science

By Weiss, Rick | Science & Spirit, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

The View from the Hill: As Labs across the Country Make Discoveries That Heighten the Promise of Stem Cell Research and Raise Public Expectations, a New Congress Is Caught in Them Oral Cross Hairs-Wedged between an Administration's Convictions and the Potential of an Emerging Science


Weiss, Rick, Science & Spirit


MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS have passed since James Thomson announced in the journal Science the world's first derivation of human embryonic stem cells. "These cell lines should be useful in human developmental biology, drug discovery, and transplantation medicine," the Wisconsin scientist wrote in language so flat one could be excused for not realizing he was launching a biomedical, political, and ethical revolution.

Today, Thomson stands by his sweeping, if understated, vision. "They're everything they're supposed to be," he says of the cells, which continue to replenish themselves in laboratory dishes, spinning off neurons, skin, blood, even beating heart muscle.

But there was one aspect of his work that Thomson vastly underestimated: the amount of turmoil and moral passion it would unleash. He certainly never dreamed that his research would be the topic of a president's first televised address to the nation. And he never guessed that the speech, which announced the imposition of federal funding limits on further studies like his, would be the opening salvo in a full-blown culture war between advocates of the therapeutically promising research and those who oppose it because it involves the destruction of human embryos.

Now, for the first time since human embryonic stem cells were discovered, the United States has elected a Democratically controlled Congress, substantially shifting the political calculus that has kept the cells in the slow lane of the federal research enterprise. That shift has already given birth to a strategic offensive by the Democrats, who say they are committed to making Thomson's predictions a reality. But it is an offensive tempered by a recognition that the new majority is fragile, and an appreciation that potent religious and spiritual currents continue to run just below the surface.

It is an offensive also tempered by the science itself, which has increasingly pointed to the biomedical possibilities of non-controversial "adult stem cells"--including, most recently, a kind of cell obtained from human amniotic fluid. Although virtually all scientists agree that it would be foolish to place any kind of stem cell off limits before the relative benefits of each is clear, conservative officeholders and commentators have not been shy about touting the new work to back their opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

At the same time, liberal politicians are poised to take full advantage of the political power of stem cells as the 2008 elections draw near. For some of these players, the stem cell issue is not just about patients and progress. It is about the future of their party and their political careers.

The rhetorical jockeying on Capitol Hill comes as the public shows signs of becoming increasingly comfortable with embryonic stem cell research. Recent polls have repeatedly found that between sixty and seventy percent of Americans support the research. And it's not just secular America behind those numbers. A 2005 poll by the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University found that fifty percent of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians approved or strongly approved of the research. And in January, a Civil Society Institute poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation found that fifty-two percent of evangelical Christians and sixty-nine percent of Roman Catholics supported congressional efforts to loosen research restrictions.

Those numbers may not be overwhelming, but they are impressive given the profound questions that lie at the core of the stem cell debate: When does an individual's life begin, and at what point does some semblance of moral standing accrue to the earliest stages of that life?

In the midst of these shifting political winds, however, at least one important element remains the same.

"His position on this issue is unchanged," White House spokesman Tony Fratto says of President George W. …

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