Despite stem cell veto, scientists and patients fight on

Stem cell therapy holds awesome potential to cure many of humanity’s most debilitating diseases — Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and spinal injuries — but promising research was dealt a devastating setback July 19 when President Bush exercised the first veto of his five years in office on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. The Senate had given the go-ahead to the research by approving the measure the previous day in a 63-37 vote.

“It is a sad day for science when the president of the United States thwarts the will of a majority of the House and Senate and a majority of the American people in blocking this important legislation,” said Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. “All the polls show that 70 percent or more of the people support stem cell research.”

It was ironic, Tipton added, that Bush used children born of frozen embryos as “stage props” in announcing his veto. “Back in the 1970s, some of these same forces wanted to outlaw in vitro fertilization,” he said. Without in vitro fertilization, none of those children would have been on display behind Bush.

The Senate was four votes short of a veto override and the House 50 votes short. The stakes were high. No other related bill or amendment will be allowed for the remainder of the 109th Congress.

The unsuccessful override vote showed deep splits in Republican ranks.

This issue represents a major conflict between the two foremost allies within the reactionary right. Corporate interests such as the giant health care centers and the pharmaceutical industry stand to profit from the radical new technology. But the opposition is led by their ally, the powerful forces of the religious right which has served corporate America’s right-wing agenda by diverting attention from critical economic issues in order to elect far-right candidates.

The measure would have allowed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research only if such embryos were created for purposes of fertility treatment, were donated with informed consent and not for financial incentive, were in excess of the clinical needs and would otherwise have been discarded.

Tipton hailed the “impressive political coalition of scientists and patients who are prepared to fight on.”

“I fully expect the American public to hold their elected representatives accountable on stem cell research,” he said. “This is an election year. We’ve got some 100 organizations including the American Medical Association who are part of this effort. I think people want scientific decisions made by scientists, not by politicians.”

The actor Christopher Reeve brought national attention to the importance of stem cell research after his paralyzing accident. Shortly before his death, he said, “Having lived with a spinal cord injury for nearly nine years, I still have to emerge every morning from dreams in which I am completely healthy and adjust to the reality of paralysis. … I believed that the scientists were progressing well … and that the light at the end of the tunnel would continue to shine brighter every day.

“I never imagined that a heated political debate over the insertion of a patient’s DNA into an unfertilized egg … would have such an effect on me,” Reeve continued. “Now, instead of waking up just to rediscover that I am paralyzed, I wake up shocked by the realization that I may remain paralyzed for a very long time, if not forever.”