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LA Times Opinion Editorial

Los Angeles Times
July 15, 2001

Seize the Promise Held by Stem Cells


Actress Mary Tyler Moore is the international chairwoman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Moore has had juvenile diabetes for more than 30 years. Actor Christopher Reeve is chairman of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. He suffered a spinal cord injury in 1995.

Although President Bush has been in office barely six months, he will soon be facing a decision that will determine a large part of his presidential legacy. In the next few weeks, he will decide whether to allow federal funding for research using human embryonic stem cells. If he decides against federal support, his legacy will be a missed opportunity to make a difference by bringing new hope and better lives to 100 million Americans facing incurable diseases and life-threatening medical conditions, just like the two of us.

Stem cells could lead to dramatic new treatments or even cures for Alzheimer's, cancer, Parkinson's, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injuries. Millions of patients and their families were overjoyed at this news. But that joy turned to concern when stem cell research became ensnared in controversy.

Some, but by no means all, right-to-life activists oppose federal funding of stem cell research involving fertilized eggs because they believe it is immoral. We respect their concern. However, as people who work every day with men, women and children facing incurable conditions, we believe this is not an issue that should be caught up in the abortion debate.

In making an ethical judgment about this promising research, a critical fact is that, under National Institutes of Health guidelines, the stem cells that could help most to promote new cures and treatments would be obtained from excess frozen fertilized eggs. These are eggs left over after a couple completes the infertility treatment called in vitro fertilization, or IVF. In fact, about 100,000 of them are now sitting frozen in IVF clinics, destined to be destroyed or remain frozen forever. The better, moral choice is to donate them to research, the way people donate organs, to help millions of Americans have a better life.

It's important to remember that without federal funding there will be no federal oversight of stem cell research. Instead, stem cell research will be left to individuals and private companies that can use fertilized eggs, free from federal regulations that prevent violations of ethical standards.

Recent newspaper stories have described research advances using adult stem cells or stem cells from fat tissue, which some have tried to use to bolster their arguments against research using stem cells harvested from fertilized eggs. But 80 Nobel Prize winners recently wrote to President Bush to say it is much too early to tell whether adult stem cells have the same potential as their embryonic counterparts. The studies behind the news reports also make it clear that scientists don't yet have conclusive proof that fat tissue really does contain stem cells.

As President Bush considers his options, he will find that many pro-life members of his party, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), former Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and many others strongly support federal funding for stem cell research. So does the American public. In fact, a poll released this spring by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research found that, after hearing both sides, public support for research using stem cells from excess fertilized eggs is overwhelming--70%.

Moreover, this support includes surprisingly strong backing from Catholics (72%), fundamentalist Christians (63%) and abortion opponents (57%). The poll shows that stem cell research does not divide Americans along pro-life or pro-choice lines, but unites them in support of medical progress to save lives.

All forms of stem cell research could lead to the kinds of medical advances that one day will be compared to the development of penicillin, the polio vaccine and AIDS drugs. President Bush has a historic opportunity to make this his legacy. Millions of families facing incurable diseases and devastating medical conditions hope President Bush will seize this opportunity and not let it slip away.


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