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Missing the mark on stem cells


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

President George W. Bush's long-awaited decision on federal funding for stem cell research has a little for everybody but a lot for no one.

By endorsing a proposal to limit research funding to some 60-odd existing stem cell lines (or colonies), did the president stake out a clear moral position or merely craft a political compromise?

Whatever the answer, what are the implications for the future of research on embryonic stem cells?

The President's position

In his recent prime-time speech, the president tried hard to emphasize his commitment to protecting what he described as the future lives that human embryos represent. At the same time, he acknowledged the potentially lifesaving medical breakthroughs that embryonic stem cell research offers.

Then president then laid out a middle-ground position. He said he favors funding of stem cell research so long as the cell lines used were created before August 9. In the case of the 60 embryos destroyed to create those cell lines, he argued, the "life and death decision has already been taken."

Yet why stop at 60?

If stem cell research is justified, as the president said, why should a particular date be an arbitrary cut-off?

According to conservative estimates, there are some 200,000 frozen embryos stored around the world, all awaiting decisions about what should be done with them. Many will be discarded -- tissue, in other words, in which a "life and death" decision has already been made. They could justifiably be used for stem cell research.

Whose cell lines?

Using existing cell lines introduces proprietary questions, too.

Since those lines were created with private monies, the companies that funded their creation have ownership claims to them. Those claims may extend not only to the cells, but also to the results of research that that employed those lines.

Licensing agreements to address these issues will need to be struck, and could eat into some of the federal funds devoted to stem cell research.

Even if scientists could be assured of access to existing stem cells, very few researchers think the 60 lines would be enough to satisfy the range of research likely to be pursued. The number alone might just be insufficient: Cell lines might not continue dividing; might lack the ability to differentiate into all the needed cell types; or might not have genetic characteristics researchers desire.

The Bush administration has suggested that the private sector should step in if research requires the use of existing or created embryos.

In one respect, this would be politically expedient: It would sidestep the expenditure of federal funds on ethically contentious research. Yet such a tactic also would push such research outside the reach of government control and oversight, as well as away from public scrutiny -- just the opposite of what controversial research needs.

This is a decision born of political compromise, but cloaked in an ethical argument. Limiting research to a few cell lines is less than scientists hope for, but may be all the Bush administration can muster.

It may be that demands for a more flexible research environment and the promise of new cures may tip the balance in favor of more research, but that decision has been put off for another day.

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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