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Politicians who cite new research as a reason to block federal stem cell funding fail the compassion test.

June 20, 2007

WHEN PRESIDENT Bush -- again -- vetoes legislation to provide federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, he is expected to bolster his unconvincing moral argument with an appeal to fresh scientific discoveries. Congress, which already faces an uphill effort to override Bush's veto, shouldn't let itself be blinded by the president's "science."

Earlier this month, as the House of Representatives was prepared to authorize funding for potentially life-saving research using embryonic cells, scientists announced that they had succeeded in turning skin cells from the tails of mice into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. Bush welcomed the mouse studies as a reason to hope "that we may one day enjoy the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells without destroying human life." He then reiterated his threat to veto funding of embryonic stem cell research on the familiar and fallacious grounds that early-stage embryos produced as part of the in-vitro fertilization process are the equivalent of fully formed human beings.

It would be a happy event if a solution to the political wrangle over embryonic stem cell research walked in on little mouse feet. The truth, however, is that it could be years before the mice experiments could be replicated with human cells. MIT biologist Rudolf Jaenisch, a participant in the research, said there are "lots and lots of technical hurdles to overcome." Meanwhile, research involving stem cells taken from human embryos -- the vast majority of which will never develop into human beings -- remains the best prospect for treatments for diabetes and Parkinson's disease, among other ailments. But scientists have been hobbled by Bush's decision to confine federal funding to research using stem cell lines that existed on Aug. 9, 2001, many of which are corrupted.

Bush may be right that "one day" a variation on the procedures used in the mouse experiments might enable scientists to transform ordinary human cells into cells with the adaptive properties of embryonic stem cells. But for those who might benefit from stem cell research, "one day" could come too late. That's why advocates of such research -- including scientists who are pursuing alternative approaches -- should protest Bush's attempt to have it both ways.

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