Federal Stem Cell Funding in the Future?

On Thursday, April 12, two bills dealing with embryonic stem cell funding will come up for votes by the U.S. Senate. The president has promised to veto one of the bills should it come to his desk, but he supports the other. Ironically, the vague language of one of the bills and subsequent confusion in the press regarding the provisions of both bills have made passage of a funding bill more likely.

Here is my summary of what the bills would do: S. 5, which is essentially the same bill as the one passed by the House in January, allows federal funding of a wide range of embryonic stem cell research. S. 30, a “compromise” bill negotiated with the White House, allows federal funding of embryonic stem cell research but of a kind that is essentially worthless.

But that is not how the bills have been described in the press. Two examples follow:

The Washington Times reported this morning:

The White House yesterday signaled support for legislation that provides federal funding for stem-cell research using embryonic cells that have no chance of surviving.

The legislation, authored by Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, seeks a middle ground in the highly charged debate over stem-cell research. His bill skirts moral concerns over using embryonic stem cells while ensuring federal funding for the breakthrough science.

Mr. Isakson’s bill would allow scientists to conduct research on embryos they determine are incapable of surviving in the womb but whose stem cells are still viable for research. The bill would also allow funding for research on stem cells from embryos that have died during fertility treatments.

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Kaisernetwork.org reported something similar:

The White House on Thursday announced its support for a bill (S 30), co-sponsored by Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), that would allow federal funding for stem cell research using embryos with no chance of survival, the Washington Times reports (Lopes, Washington Times, 4/6).

Currently, federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research is allowed only for research using embryonic stem cell lines created on or before Aug. 9, 2001, under a policy announced by President Bush on that date.

Coleman and Isakson’s measure would fund research on stem cells taken from “dead” human embryos or extracted from living embryos without destroying them. In addition, it would allow federal funding for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos that are not likely to survive during the freezing process or in the womb.

I’m sure the reporters who wrote those articles had access to some interpretations by members of Congress or the White House to which I’m not privy. But I don’t see much similarity between what they describe and the actual language of the two pieces of legislation. Here is what the two bills, in relevant part, actually say:

S 30: It is the purpose of this Act to—

(1) intensify research that may result in improved understanding of or treatments for diseases and other adverse health conditions; and

(2) promote the derivation of pluripotent stem cell lines without the creation of human embryos for research purposes and without the destruction or discarding of, or risk of injury to, a human embryo or embryos other than those that are naturally dead.

By contrast, 

S 5: (b) Ethical Requirements— Human embryonic stem cells shall be eligible for use in any research conducted or supported by the Secretary if the cells meet each of the following:

(1) The stem cells were derived from human embryos that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for the purposes of fertility treatment, and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment.

(2) Prior to the consideration of embryo donation and through consultation with the individuals seeking fertility treatment, it was determined that the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded.

(3) The individuals seeking fertility treatment donated the embryos with written informed consent and without receiving any financial or other inducements to make the donation.

The appeal of S. 30 to both sides of the debate may be that “without risk of injury” is open to interpretation. Those in favor of embryonic stem cell research can claim that funding for research done without the intent of injuring embryos, even if it in fact might injure some embryos, is acceptable. Those who worry about the well-being of embryos are likely to interpret the phrase very narrowly, as not allowing the funding of any research with even a potential for harming embryos.

The result will be the same whether both, neither, or one of the bills is passed. The nonsensical waste of time debating federal funding will continue, while researchers who truly care about making progress will do so with private funding.