Friday, July 29, 2005

A Courageous Flip Flop - The Right Decision

Great news off the Senate floor this morning as Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist has changed his position, yet again, on the issue of federal funding for stem cell research in the United States. In a gutsy move that now places him squarely against the White House and the religious conservative base of his Republican Party, Frist has decided that his morals and ethics can both support the provisions of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act.

The bill would allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research for cells derived from human embryos that:
1. are created for the purpose of fertility treatments;
2. are no longer needed by those who received the treatments;
3. would otherwise be discarded and destroyed;
4. are donated for research with the written, informed consent of those who received the fertility treatments, but do not receive financial or other incentives for their donations.
He says that while he did support the President's policy back in 2001, it has become clear that the 78 lines of embryonic cells that were to have been available to researches has become 22 and, of those 22, many
are starting to become less stable and less replicative than initially thought (they are acquiring and losing chromosomes, losing the normal karyotype, and potentially losing growth control). They also were grown on mouse feeder cells, which we have learned since, will likely limit their future potential for clinical therapy in humans (e.g., potential of viral contamination).
As a result, he says that
While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases. Therefore, I believe the President’s policy should be modified. We should expand federal funding (and thus NIH oversight) and current guidelines governing stem cell research, carefully and thoughtfully staying within ethical bounds.
He also discussed the future of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act which passed the House by 238-194 margin back in May. There's such lack of consensus within the Senate GOP caucus that several bills have been introduced on the issue. One, introduced by presidential contender, Senator Brownback of Kansas, seeks to ban it completely; a "middle ground" bill was introduced this week by Senator Norm Coleman of MN but does not do nearly enough and was received with only tepid support; and then there's the main, aforementioned, bill. Each bill's supporters are jockeying for support and because of the fractured nature of the party, the likelihood of any of them coming up for a vote was, previously, considered unlikely especially given the upcoming SCOTUS battle, budget bill debates etc and other issues that will take up floor time once the Senate returns from its August recess. However, Frist says that "the Senate will likely consider the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which passed the House in May by a vote of 238 to 194, at some point this Congress."

The bill does, in his opinion, have "significant shortcomings" which he says "must be addressed." He believes that the bill:
  • Lacks a strong ethical and scientific oversight mechanism. He says a panel similar to the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee that oversees DNA research should be implemented here, too. Since most of the embryonic stem cell research being done today is privately-funded (because federal guidelines are far too restrictive most researchers have gone to the private sector to do their work),there is a lack of ethical and scientific oversight that routinely accompanies NIH-(federal) funded research;
  • Doesn’t prohibit financial or other incentives between scientists and fertility clinics such that scientists could influence the decisions of parents seeking fertility treatment;
  • Doesn’t specify whether the patients or clinic staff or anyone else has the final say about whether an embryo will be implanted or will be discarded. Frist believes that the destiny of an embryo must clearly and ultimately rest with the parents.
In conclusion,
These shortcomings merit a thoughtful and thorough rewrite of the bill. But as insufficient as the bill is, it is fundamentally consistent with the principles I laid out more than four years ago. Thus, with appropriate reservations, I will support the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act.
Immediately thereafter he addresses the religious right by saying "I am pro-life." And while he says that he believes that the embryo, according to his faith, is a complete living organism, "to me it's just not a matter of faith. It's a matter of science."

He also says that he supports further research on adult stem cells as well as stem cells taken from cord blood. But, in the end, he explains why embryonic stem cells are most promising and deserve increased federal funding.

I don't think this is a true Kerryesque flip flop. One must have the humility to constantly reevaluate important decisions and, if you feel you've made the wrong one in the past, it's never too late to change. In fact, it's incumbent that you change if you know your first decision was wrong. He says, "Policymakers, I believe, have a responsibility to re-examine stem cell research policy in the future and, if necessary, make adjustments." That statement should not merely be limited to stem cell research policy, but it's a start.

That takes guts. Kudos to Dr. Frist for finally coming down on the right side of this issue, it shows true courage and he is finally displaying the leadership that is so necessary in a presidential nominee.


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