Coming soon: stem cell showdown

| Fri Jun. 30, 2006 2:14 PM EDT

From the Washington Post:

Senate leaders from both parties agreed yesterday to schedule a vote on a package of bills that would loosen President Bush's five-year-old restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research.

With head counts suggesting there are enough votes to pass the legislation and with Bush having promised he would veto it, yesterday's action sets the stage for what could be the first full-blown showdown between the chamber and the president.

Bring it!

The package would allow federal funding of research on embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics--embryos rich in the useful kind of stem cell. (Bush yesterday called them "society's vulnerable members." How's that for a frame?) As Mother Jones reports this month, there are lots and lots and lots of those embryos.

And so, far from going away, the accumulation of human embryos is likely to grow, and grow, and grow. And in growing, the embryo overstock is likely to change—or at least complicate—the way we collectively think about human life at its earliest stages, and morally what is the right thing to do with it. At some point, embryos may alter or even explode the reproductive landscape: It is ivf embryos, after all, that are at the center of the nation's stem cell debate, which itself has prompted a new national conversation about life and reproductive liberty, creating new alliances as well as schisms. In 2001, as one of his first major domestic policy decisions, George W. Bush banned federal funding for labs developing new stem cell lines using leftover ivf embryos; then in May 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill approving funding for stem cell research using these same embryos, setting the stage for an eventual conservative showdown. In the course of this debate, embryos have emerged as another tool for truly hardline conservatives looking for new ways to beat back abortion rights. Like "fetal rights" laws that seemingly protect unborn children from acts of homicide, "embryo rights" are being waved about as a weapon in the assault on abortion rights, as anti-abortion lawmakers talk about seizing control over frozen embryo stores; limiting the creation of new embryos; or both.

But the impact of the embryo is also taking place on a more subtle and personal level. The glut's very existence illuminates how the newest reproductive technologies are complicating questions about life; issues that many people thought they had resolved are being revived and reconsidered, in a different emotional context.

Read the full article, by Liza Mundy, here.