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Bush Should Yield to Science, Expand Stem-Cell Research

Instead of vetoing stem-cell legislation again, President Bush should revise his 2001 limits on the research — and demonstrate that he’s open to new scientific evidence. [IMGCAP(1)]

Bush devised an ingenious compromise in August 2001, allowing federal funding on stem cells extracted from human embryos prior to then — but not after. Bowing to scientific evidence, he could update that decision to the present, vastly expanding the research.

One of the chronic tendencies on both sides of the polarized, partisan divide in the nation’s capital is to put politics and ideology ahead of evidence. It constantly gets in the way of problem-solving and good policy.

Cases in point on the Republican side — besides Bush’s stem-cell restrictions — include resistance to the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming, exclusion of women’s health concerns in the abortion fight and the administration’s failure to heed dissenting opinions on Iraq policy.

Bush ignored evidence ahead of the war that Iraq lacked weapons of mass destruction — admittedly, a minority view among intelligence agencies — and the administration dismissed and even stifled expert opinion from the military and State Department on how difficult the aftermath would be.

On the Democratic side, Congressional leaders were not even willing to hear from Iraq troop commander Gen. David Petraeus about possible progress with his new counter-insurgency strategy before pushing ahead with legislation imposing a troop-withdrawal deadline.

And most Democrats are impervious to overwhelming evidence that the 2003 Medicare prescription drug law, based on market competition among private insurance plans, is cutting costs and pleasing seniors.

To his credit, Bush has changed his view over time on the seriousness of the global warming danger and man’s contribution to it, although it’s taken a Supreme Court decision to force his Environmental Protection Agency to begin considering how to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

At the same time, the Supreme Court —with Bush’s two conservative appointees helping form a new majority — has just decided to impose its judgment over that of medical experts on what late-term abortion procedures will protect a woman’s health.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists declared that “intact dilation and extraction” — otherwise known as “partial-birth abortion” — presents less danger of hemorrhage and infection than other procedures, but the court majority upheld Congress’ ban on it anyway.

On stem cells, after intense debate between “pro-life” and “pro-research” advocates, Bush signed an executive order on Aug. 9, 2001, allowing federal funding of research using stem-cell lines extracted from human embryos prior to that date but barring it for lines derived after that date.

It seemed a Solomonic decision — opening up funding for research into potentially dramatic disease treatments while at the same time avoiding encouragement for further destruction of embryos.

At the time, Bush asserted — on the basis of findings from the National Institutes of Health — that 68 such lines would be available for federally funded research. Other scientists immediately challenged that figure, and they have been proved right. Only 21 lines exist world-wide, and all of them are contaminated by the mouse tissue in which they are stored.

Last year, Bush exercised his first veto —and his only one, until the veto coming shortly over Iraq deadlines — to strike down Congress’ attempt to undo his limits and permit funding for research on stem cells derived from embryos “left over” and destined for destruction at in vitro fertilization clinics.

This year, both the House and Senate have passed new stem-cell bills by overwhelming — but not veto-proof — margins and Bush is promising another veto.

But he could do something different: issue a new executive order this month or next allowing funding of research on cells derived between 2001 and the effective date of the order, expanding the available lines from 21 to 400.

The logic of his 2001 decision would remain: He would not be funding the destruction of any new embryos, simply widening research on cells already extracted.

Bush’s existing policy has heavily skewed federal funding toward non-embryonic stem-cell research — especially “adult” stem cells derived from blood, umbilical cords and bone marrow — which does show promise in treating some diseases.

However, the overwhelming consensus of medical scientists and disease groups is that embryonic stem cells — the inner core of days-old embryos — offer more potential for disease cures than adult cells because they theoretically can replace any tissue in the body.

Bush’s own NIH director, Elias Zerhouni, told the Senate in March that “the presentations about adult stem cells having as much or more potential than embryonic stem cells, in my view, do not hold scientific water … I think they are overrated.”

He said that “it is clear today that American science would be better served, and the nation would be better served, if we let our scientists have more access to more [embryonic] cell lines.” This is a case where, applying the same ingenuity he exhibited in 2001, Bush can expand scientific discovery without abandoning his principles.

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