TV & Radio
Senator Frist's Stem Cell Shift
Published: July 30, 2005 - New York Times
The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, deserves credit for moving gingerly toward a more expansive policy on stem cell research. Mr. Frist - the transplant-surgeon-turned-lawmaker who was last seen catering to religious conservatives by questioning whether Terri Schiavo was really in a persistent vegetative state - showed courage and common sense yesterday by endorsing a bill to expand federal financing for embryonic stem cell research. Such research has the potential to provide cures for a range of diseases someday, but it is anathema to the religious right because the stem cells are extracted from microscopic embryos that are destroyed in the process.
Mr. Frist is thus in some danger of alienating a powerful segment of the Republican political base. His stance will also put him at odds with President Bush, who is threatening to veto the measure, but it may enhance his appeal to moderates if he decides to run for president.
Although no federal law bans embryonic stem cell research, federal financing for the research has strict limits, which threaten to slow the development of this highly promising field. Although critics often contend that advances with adult stem cells make research on embryonic stem cells unnecessary, it is notable that Mr. Frist, a physician and a researcher by training, disagrees. He described embryonic stem cells as "uniquely powerful" because they have the capacity to develop into any kind of tissue in the body, potentially enabling them to meet medical needs that adult stem cells cannot.
Under a policy announced by Mr. Bush four years ago, federal money can be used to finance research on only some 22 stem cell lines that had been derived from surplus embryos at fertility clinics before the time of his announcement. Unfortunately, those lines are deteriorating and are potentially contaminated with mouse viruses, limiting their usefulness. A bill approved by the House and pending in the Senate would enlarge the pool by including stem cells from additional surplus embryos that had been donated by fertility clinic patients who would otherwise discard them. Mr. Frist had been supporting the president's policy, but he now plans to support the pending bill, with some reservations.
That is a step forward, but a pathetically small one. The bill would not allow financing for the most promising kind of stem cell research, known as therapeutic cloning, which involves the creation of embryos genetically matched to patients with particular diseases. Even so, the Senate should approve this modest move forward, preferably by a margin large enough to override a presidential veto.