Bush’s Stem Cell Veto Will Hurt Hundreds of Thousands of Sick Americans

Bush’s much-anticipated veto of H.R. 810, a bill seeking to lift the severe restrictions on federal funding to embryonic stem cell research, is expected today. It will come as a blow to the hundreds of thousands of Americans with Alzheimers, Parkinsons, Diabetes, and spinal cord injuries, many of whom are probably too sick to march on Washington, but for whom the potential use of the 500,000 embryos left over from IVF treatments holds great promise. As I reported in the current issue of Mother Jones:

Two out of three Americans (and even 50 percent of evangelicals) support embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), yet only 3 percent of excess embryos have been designated by parents for research. Since President Bush’s ban on federal funding for ESCR in 2001, it has simply not been on their menu of options. ESCR is carried out by only a few private laboratories and state-funded labs in New Jersey and Illinois. (California, where voters approved $3 billion for ESCR in 2004, has yet to distribute research funds because of a lawsuit brought by an affiliate of Focus on the Family, among others.) In either case, these labs get their embryos from the handful of IVF clinics that accept donations for research.

This puts Republicans in an awkward position. How to mollify voters (to say nothing of Nancy Reagan) without alienating their pro-life base? Enter Pennsylvania Republican Senators Rick Santorum (who has likened ESCR to abortion but who is up for reelection) and Arlen Specter (an ardent proponent of ESCR), who, backed by the President’s Council on Bioethics, have concocted a novel way to split this political baby. Their bill, S.B. 2754, proposes manufacturing nonviable embryos by replacing the nucleus of a woman’s egg with that of an adult cell in which the DNA has been altered. The resulting “entity”—in the words of one researcher; others have called it a “biological artifact”—is “pluripotent,” i.e., able to transform itself into most types of human cells, while bypassing the “totipotent” stage, when the embryo could develop into a human being.

The co-sponsor of H.R. 810, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Co.) has called the Santorum/Spector bill, along with Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback’s bill to stop “fetus farming”—which is in fact nonexistent; leftover IVF embryos are slated for destruction or what is euphemistically called “expiration”—nothing more than a “fig leaf.” As DeGette, whose own 12-year-old daughter has Type 1 diabetes, noted: “I guess what the president is saying is he thinks it would be better to throw these embryos away as medical waste.”