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Congress Debates Federal Funding for Stem Cell Research

Aired July 18, 2001 - 10:06   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We're also watching another hearing that's under way right now. This, as you see, is Senator Bill Frist, Republican from Tennessee, the only doctor in the Senate. We expect that he's going make comments any moment now saying that he is going to endorse stem cell research and federal funding for such.

Let's listen in.


SEN. BILL FRIST (R), TENNESSEE: No. 2, I am a transplant surgeon. I've served on ethics committees of individual hospitals, I've served the united network for organ sharing, which is the coordinating body -- the registry for the transplantation of all human tissue or all human organs in the United States of America -- a body that was set up by our United States Congress to coordinate, to insure that there is full public accountability and transparency for the transplantation of tissues and organs. I have been the author of scores of peer review papers in the medical literature on transplantation, the ethics surrounding transplantation as well.

I, as an individual, wrestle with the decisions of life and death and health and healing. I have had the opportunity to routinely deal with transplanting tissue into six day old babies who would otherwise die without that transplant of a heart and transplanting people well into their 50s years of age.

I've had the blessing of seeing the miracle -- the miracle -- that results from the transplantation of tissue -- of taking a beating heart out of an individual who has healthy lungs and healthy kidney and healthy liver and taking that heart and placing it into another for the benefit of others.

I've had the opportunity to see a very rigorous consent process, which we developed in 1968 through the 70s. a rigorous consent process that is well established which makes sure that we avoid the potential abuse that is inevitably associated with the use of a scarce tissue that literally gives life as well as hope to other individuals.

Based on this experience I am absolutely convinced based on the knowledge and the experience but also what we as policy makers can do -- that we can address the use of living tissue -- of living cells -- that otherwise would not be used, that otherwise would not be used. The words are tough but discarded, disposed of. Of that particular subset of tissues I believe within an appropriate ethical construct we can use that tissue to the benefit of hundreds of others, thousands of others -- maybe millions of others.

It wasn't easy in transplantation. We addressed many of these issues in the 1960s and 1970s. We defined brain death in the year 1968. It was debated in Congress. It was debated in the scientific literature. That sort of public discourse we have to have today, I believe. That addressed issues of human beings at 15 years of age and 30 years of age and 50 years of age. But now we're much earlier in this life cycle. But we're addressing the same issues of informed consent of using living tissue.

The consent process itself is inadequate today. We absolutely must have a comprehensive consent process to avoid abuse -- avoid the potential for commercialization, avoid the potential for incentives of traveling down the so called slippery slope.

My third point is research. You know, we have to be very careful. Everybody will put this long list of diseases -- Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Diabetes, diseases that we're all exposed to. We need to make it very clear to our colleagues and the people broadly -- this is untried, untested research -- huge potential, huge potential, yes -- but it's just that -- it's potential. It's untried, it's untested. Yes, we need the research itself but let's not put every hope for every disease to be cured by this one aspect of research -- but huge potential.

It has become to mean hope to most people and that's good. And I love it when people come up and say, "That's the only hope we have for the cure of my child." That's really not true -- there's lots of other areas that we can -- we can explore as well but it is important. It's evolving science. Whatever structure we set up I believe we have to set it up in a way that will continue to address new ethical issues that are introduced. We've seen it in the newspapers over the last two weeks.

We don't know what's being done today. We certainly don't know six months from now. And whatever ethical construct we set up we must have it ongoing and responsive as we go forward.

There is the potential for abuse of this research. How far should we go? Scientists will say, "Let's just open it broadly." I, again, as a scientist want to say that we do have to recognize that this research can be abused. There's a lack of predictability -- we must build in the safeguards.

Fourth and the last point is federal funding. And I will say that we should fund adult stem cell research, we should increase adult stem cell research but I also conclude that both embryonic stem cell research as well as the adult stem cell research should be federally funded within a very carefully regulated, fully transparent framework that insures the highest respect for the moral significance of a human embryo.

Will just read very quickly 10 components of a comprehensive framework that I think is very important. And, again, this comprehensive framework in my mind is the only way that we should allow embryonic stem cell research to progress because I believe based on my experience with the transplantation of tissues that only by having a comprehensive framework such as I outlined will we be able to progress in a manner that is respectful of the moral significance of the human embryo and the potential of stem cell research to improve health.

Those 10 components -- and I'll just read them.

No. 1, I would recommend that we ban embryo creation for research. I believe that the creation of human embryos solely for research purposes should be strictly prohibited.

No. 2, I would continue the funding ban on the derivation. I think we need to strengthen and codify the current ban on federal funding for the derivation of embryonic stem cells.

No. 3, I would ban human cloning. I would prohibit all human cloning to prevent the creation and exploitation of life for research purposes.

I would increase adult stem cell research funding.

No. 5, I would provide funding for embryonic stem cell research only from blastocyst that would otherwise be discarded. I would allow federal funding for research using only those embryonic stem cells derived from blastocyst that are left over after in vitro fertilization and would otherwise be discarded.

No. 6, require a rigorous informed consent process. I won't elaborate now on that but I can tell you based on the well-established consent process with transplantation it is critical -- it is critical that we address this in a thorough manner. It has not been addressed to date.

No. 7, I would limit the number of stem cell lines. I would restrict the federally funded research using embryonic stem cell derived from blastocyst to a limited number of cell lines.

No. 8, I would establish a strong public research oversight system. This oversight mechanism is critical. We did it in transplantation in a very successful way. I believe we need a national research registry to insure the transparent in depth monitoring of federally funded and federally regulated stem cell research and to promote the ethical high quality research standards.

No. 9, require ongoing independent scientific and ethical review. I do believe we need ongoing scientific review by the Institute of Medicine. I do recommend that we create an independent presidential advisory panel to monitor the evolving bioethical issues surrounding stem cell research. And I believe that we should have annual reports to Congress.

And, lastly, I believe we need to strengthen and harmonize the fetal tissue research restrictions. Transplantation was a little bit later in life. We addressed that 20 to 30 years ago. Fetal tissue research we moved into about six or seven years ago. And now we're moving earlier in that time line to embryonic stem cells, which I believe we should address in the manner that I've outline.

As we address the embryonic stem cells, which are the early precursor cells I believe we need to go back and harmonize the process for fetal tissue research as well.

Mr. Chairman, I thank you for the opportunity to outline what I view is an appropriate . . .

HARRIS: And with that we have heard Senator Bill Frist outline the conditions under which he would support embryonic stem cell research. He has already said he would also endorse the adult stem cell research.

Let's bring in our Kate Snow, who's on Capitol Hill. She's been listening. We'll bring Kate in to recap the whole thing for us. Kate?

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, you're right, he has embraced embryonic stem cell research. Senator Bill Frist, a Republican senator also a heart surgeon by training. It's been much anticipated that he would come out at some point either for or against this type of research because he is so well respected here on Capitol Hill for his medical point of view. He is often sought out by Republicans for advice and his opinion on medical issues. He has told us through his staff that he has been grappling with this and debating this inside himself for several weeks now -- really been studying the issue trying to figure out where he should come out on this.

You heard him say clearly that he is very pro-life. He said in his words he said, "I mention that because all of our decisions are always colored by our spirituality," he said, "And by our moral beliefs." But then he went on to say that he believed that it is a pro-life point of view, in his words, to take the view that embryonic stem cell research is appropriate. He believes that it will further medical research and that it does provide some hope. Although he did caution, Leon, also that it is limited hope. We said, "We haven't tried this kind of research yet." So he said, "We shouldn't put all of our hope in it but it does offer a lot of promise." Leon?

HARRIS: Kate, as I understand it, the senator is not just an adviser to the rest of his colleagues on this matter, he's also an adviser to President Bush and many are waiting to see exactly which way he is going to try to influence Mr. Bush on this issue.

SNOW: Absolutely. That's a key point, Leon. He has long been an adviser to the president on many issues including health care. You might remember he was just the author recently of the Patients' Bill of Rights -- the version that the president wanted to pass, which actually didn't pass the Senate. So he's been a key player. On this issue, though, we should be clear -- an aide tells us this morning that he has not consulted with the White House, he has not coordinated his decision with the White House but, of course, they hope that Senator Frist's words will have some impact on President Bush. Leon? HARRIS: Interesting. Kate Snow on Capitol Hill, thank you. We'll talk with you later on.



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