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The President's science policy

graphic
by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

As the country waits and wonders who will be President, more than just who will live in the White House hangs in the balance. One of the issue areas that received very little attention is science and health policy, even though the President has substantial influence and control over funding levels and research policies and it is an area in which the major party candidates differ significantly. So as we wait for the resolution of one of the closest presidential elections in history, what can we expect from either a Gore or Bush administration when it comes to national policy about medical research and health care? On one of the most important questions -- research on embryonic stem cells -- we will see very different answers.

Center for Bioethics

What's your opinion?

Trying to make policy change with the times

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced that it would use federal funds to support research on human embryonic stem cells, which signals at least the beginning of change in policies that have been around since the first Reagan Administration. In the early 1980s, President Reagan implemented policies that barred the federal government from using its funds to support either research on human embryos or research involving the use of human fetal tissue. The rhetoric supporting both policies was steeped in language about the sanctity of human life and the importance of preventing taxpayers' dollars from supporting what many felt was immoral research.

When Bill Clinton was running for President in 1992, one of his policy promises was the review of the bans on embryo and fetal tissue research. And in 1993, after his election, the fetal tissue research ban was lifted. A blue ribbon panel recommended the same for embryo research, but the politics of abortion and threats of action by Congress deterred any change from being implemented. Only in 1999 did the wheels of change begin to move again, this time in response to the breakthrough discovery of so-called embryonic stem cells -- the cells in a human embryo from which every other cell of the body is derived. It was hailed as one of the scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, with promise of allowing everything from a fuller understanding of human development, to the ability to cure spinal cord injury and grow organs for transplantation.

Stem cells -- promise vs. principle

But this fledging area of science needs substantial research support to realize its promise, and the main engine for biomedical research support in the U.S. is still the federal government. The only thing standing in the way of U.S. scientists leading the world in this research is the ban on federal support for research involving human embryos. So the NIH determined, with the support of the Clinton Administration, that since embryonic stem cells were not themselves human embryos, federal research support could be provided for stem cell research so long as the extraction of the stem cells from human embryos was done with private funds. This interpretation of policy is an attempt to realize the promise of stem cell research without running afoul of the principle underlying the embryo research ban -- at least that's how the Clinton Administration sees it, and it's a position Al Gore promises to support.

A number of mostly Republican members of Congress see this interpretation as nothing more than an end run around a morally motivated public policy, and have promised to introduce legislation to extend the embryo research ban to include embryonic stem cells. This is the position George W. Bush promises to support.

A Bush presidency would likely see such legislation signed into law, while a Gore presidency would likely mean a veto of any such legislation. With such a clear indication that the two candidates promise quite different futures for at least one area of biomedical research, it would have been nice for voters to see this and other choices as they were having trouble making up their mind. So while it's too late to change our votes, at least we'll all have a better idea of what's coming when someone is finally declared President-elect.


As we wait for the resolution of one of the closest presidential elections in history, what can we expect from either a Gore or Bush Administration when it comes to national policy about medical research and health care? On one of the most important questions -- research on embryonic stem cells that could offer the ability to cure spinal cord injury and grow organs for transplantation -- we will see very different answers. Does it matter for science policy who occupies the White House? Which position do you support?



Post your opinion here.


Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.


"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.


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