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Things Heat Up

Thomson and his colleagues, like most research biologists, are part of an international network of scientists working in universities, research institutes, and corporations. Since 1945 American universities with biological and medical sciences programs have benefited from the bounty of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its biggest agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is a foregone conclusion that without the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and other government agency funding, Americans would not enjoy some of the best medical care in the world. Although the brute force of government spending on biological science hasn’t always yielded immediate results, by most measures, America has benefited greatly from the investment. Americans have access to a powerful repository of drugs, therapies, and medical devices—a dizzying array of technology designed to propel us into a happy and healthy old age.

But not all has been congenial between biomedical scientists and their funding agencies. Presidents and Congresses, both liberals and conservatives, have used their authority to guide, redirect, and limit funds. In this aspect, the fate of science funding is no different than funding for interstate highway systems, municipal police departments, or the National Endowment for the Arts. As it turned out, James Thomson and other human embryologists did their work not with government resources but with private funds. Why? Because government support of research using human embryos has been banned by Congress for decades. The controversy began in the late 1970s with the advent of IVF and the spare embryos generated by the procedure. Most proponents of biomedical research hold that it is morally permissible, even morally required, to use the extra embryos for potentially life-saving biomedical research. Opponents object, saying that the destruction of any embryo is the moral equivalent of killing a human life.

Soon after the Thomson paper was published, the NIH, recognizing the potential of human embryonic stem cell research, sought to lift the congressional ban, and NIH director Harold Varmus said he would draft guidelines regulating the use of embryonic cells. In 1999, President Clinton asked for a review of the matter by his ethics experts, and they concluded that the federal government should fund research provided that only embryos left over from fertility treatments be used. The recommendations clearly stated that the parents must have donated the embryos expressly for the research and that the IVF clinics must not profit from the exchange.

That year, Science proclaimed the development of human stem cell lines as the most important advance of the year. Cn its annual top ten list, it said, "In just one short year, stem cells have shown promise for treating a dizzying variety of human diseases." Similar reports followed from the major media outlets. CNN breathlessly reported, "Researchers isolate human stem cells in the lab; breakthrough could lead to treatments for paralysis, diabetes."7 Amidst the commotion, however, were growing criticisms and warnings from religious and moral leaders. The National Council of Catholic Bishops protested, calling the White House policy to allow the use of otherwise-discarded early embryos "guidelines on how to ethically destroy human life."8 Pope John Paul II weighed in, calling stem cell research an "accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils, such as euthanasia [and] infanticide." He went on to say, "A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death."9 The fact that cloned animals were now part of the scientific scene muddied waters further—the procedure used to make Dolly the sheep shares its scientific history with embryo research. Scientists and journalists used words such as embryo and cloning so cavalierly that the lay public wasn’t sure what distinguished animal cloning from babies conceived through IVF and embryonic stem cell research. As the millennium drew to a close, many people felt that a knock on the door from their human clones seemed a distinct possibility.

Clinton signed the NIH guidelines in August 2000, opening the door to scientists who needed funding for embryonic stem cell research. But few were willing to risk the precious time to write grant proposals that could be rescinded with sudden shifts in political winds. During a campaign speech, George W. Bush made clear his intentions regarding the issue, saying, "I oppose federal funding for stem cell research that involves destroying living human embryos."10 In an election year riddled with controversy, the stage was set for a raging battle in which scientists, politicians, religious leaders, doctors, and patients would find themselves unwilling soldiers.

One year later from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush made a sweeping announcement: funding from the NIH would be used for research only with preexisting embryonic cell lines (which numbered only in the dozens), and no federal funds would be used for the creation or use of new stem cell lines or to clone human embryos for any purpose. Later that same year, the House of Representatives followed the administration’s lead and, by a wide majority, banned cloning of humans and voted to criminalize so-called therapeutic cloning, a laboratory method used to generate embryonic stem cells. The penalty was set at a $1 million fine and up to ten years in jail. In January 2002, the Senate swung into action, and Sam Brownback (R, Kansas) introduced a proposal that mirrored the House’s bill. The Senate failed to act on the legislation in 2003 and 2004. In 2005, momentum in favor of stem cell research began to swing slowly the other direction. In a challenge to President Bush, the House of Representatives approved legislation to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell research. The vote was 238 to 194, 47 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto. "I made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers’ money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life—I’m against that," Bush said before the vote. "And therefore, if that bill does that, I will veto it."11

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