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Bioethicist on implications of Bush's decision

Charo
Professor Alta Charo  


(CNN) -- President Bush's decision on stem cell research could be the most important of his presidency because of its scientific, legal and moral implications, as some have said. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, spoke with CNN's Daryn Kagan on Thursday about what the decision will mean to scientists, scholars and citizens.

KAGAN: First of all, to be clear, we're not talking about the legality of stem cell research, we're talking about federal funding?

CHARO: That's correct. Stem cell research is entirely legal in the United States. The only question is whether the federal government will give researchers money to work on these cells themselves.

KAGAN: What would the impact be, giving money or not, in terms of a time frame of progress?

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What President Bush's decision means

Bush will allow federal funding for research on 60 lines of embryonic stem cells. These lines of cells have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely but not all have been approved by the National Institutes of Health, which sets federal standards for research.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to turn into any other kind of cell in the body, and have been looked to as possible treatments for Alzheimer's disease and Type I diabetes.

CHARO: Giving money would speed up the progress enormously. It would open up this area of research to researchers across the United States [at] many universities that can't afford to focus all of their attention on creating totally private separate facilities for private-funding research -- which would be the case in the absence of federal funding.

KAGAN: But isn't it true, or at least probable, that with federal funding there could [be strings] attached in terms of the limitations of what the research could be done?

CHARO: Yes, but some of those strings are good strings. The absence of embryo research [restrictions] throughout the 1980s resulted in a commercial free-for-all. A lot of the ethical problems that we've debated for a decade in that area stem entirely from the fact that it was being done in the commercial sector with little oversight and little public input.

The NIH guidelines proposed under President Clinton's administration focus on things like making sure embryos were obtained from people who absolutely had decided against other options -- such as using them, discarding them, or simply discarding them without doing the research upon them.

It also put some conditions on the kinds of research in order to make sure that there were no possible health risks to any child or any adult from the research and [to make sure, for example, it was] not associated with reproductive cloning.

KAGAN: But the key word there is the word you used, "guidelines." In other words, just suggestions. If there is no federal funding [with] federal guidelines attached to [it], and if you are using the private money, basically researchers can do what they want and set their own ethical standards?

CHARO: Absolutely. Of course, states do have a role, and some states have passed legislation governing embryo research, and some states may want to revisit that topic. But this is very difficult for 50 different state legislatures to do, and having 50 different eclectic rules across the United States certainly doesn't facilitate either ethical or scientific research.

KAGAN: And is it also possible, without financial support, that a lot of this research could head outside of the United States?

CHARO: It already has started setting outside of the United States. One of the most prominent researchers in the United States, Roger Peterson of the University of California at San Francisco, announced he was going to go to the United Kingdom, where they support this kind of research -- with guidelines from the government, subject to public input. He finds it a better environment, financially and politically, to promote this work, which ultimately will promote the health of patients.



Greta@LAW





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