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Published: Wednesday, 8/1/2001

A gift unrealized

If the 1973 U. S. Supreme Court decision called Roe vs. Wade had never legalized abortion ...

If technology that led to the 1978 birth of Louise Joy Brown, the first test-tube baby, had never existed ...

Then President Bush's hesitation in approving federal funding for research with human embryonic stem (ES) cells might be understandable. But those landmarks in law and medicine are a reality. They make the controversy over stem cell research a ludicrous episode of political posturing that ignores simple logic.

Mr. Bush should face the reality, move on, and clear the way for scientific research that offers new hope for solving health problems that affect millions of Americans.

Human ES cells are “building block” cells, capable of developing into perhaps every other type of cell found in the human body. In theory, scientists could use ES cells to make replacements for diseased cells and tissues.

Many health problems might be solved if the body could re-grow whatever tissue it needed. Indeed, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) report concluded that stem cells could benefit 100 million Americans.

Stem cells could provide new nerve cells for the millions with Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, and stroke; fresh heart tissue to repair dead spots in heart attack patients, and better treatments for scores of other diseases.

Although only a dream at present, ES cells theoretically could be coaxed into forming whole new kidneys, livers, hearts, and other organs for transplantation.

With all those potential benefits, why isn't NIH investing big-time in ES cell research?

A religious and ethical controversy has blocked the way. Much of it involves the source of ES cells. Scientists obtain them from human embryos, and the embryos are destroyed in the process. Yes, ES cells are harvested from embryos that are just a few days old, smaller than the period at the end of a sentence, consisting of a mass of cells with no human appearance.

Nevertheless, millions of Americans regard the destruction of an embryo as the taking of a human life. They include some of the President's most loyal political supporters. As Mr. Bush has said, he personally believes that life begins at conception. During last year's campaign Mr. Bush promised to continue a ban on ES research that former President Clinton imposed in 1996.

Approving stem cell research would break a campaign promise, antagonize political supporters, and violate his own personal ethical code.

But what on Earth does a ban accomplish?

The Supreme Court ruled 28 years ago that destruction of embryos is legal, and more than 1 million therapeutic abortions take place annually. A ban on ES research will not change that reality. Indeed, if destruction of an embryo does represent the taking of a human life, there may be solace in knowing that the embryo used in stem cell research at least is helping humanity.

Likewise, a ban will not turn back the clock on scientific progress that made the use and destruction of embryos common. Embryos are produced routinely in the fertility clinics that emerged after test-tube babies became possible 23 years ago.

These clinics use in vitro fertilization to help couples conceive a child. Eggs taken from the woman are fertilized with her partner's sperm in the laboratory to form an embryo, which then is transferred to the mother's uterus. Clinics usually produce multiple embryos for each couple. Many of the embryos that are now wasted could become sources of stem cells in the battle against disease.

Opponents make a sound point in arguing for research on other ways to obtain stem cells that do not involve destruction of embryos. It should be a priority of any NIH stem cell research program. Experts believe that such new sources will be found, but will require a few years of research with ES cells. Ironically, a ban could well delay discovery of alternative sources of stem cells, and result in years of additional embryo destruction.

Mr. Clinton played politics in 1996 when he banned use of NIH money on ES cell research. President Bush should reverse an ill-founded policy of the previous administration, and a campaign pledge that now jeopardizes the health of millions of indisputably alive Americans.

The stem cell controversy is an opportunity for Mr. Bush to demonstrate the wisdom, vision, and leadership that many Americans find lacking so far in this new President.



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