Professor advises Senate on stem cells

Political discussions over the various ethical, legal and scientific dilemmas posed by stem cell research continued last Tuesday in Washington D.C., as religion professor and director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute Ronald Green testified before a Senate subcommittee.

Green expressed his support for a House bill, H.R. 810, which permits the federal government to fund embryonic stem cell research in select cases, before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Green said he believes it is the best way for the government to encourage embryonic stem cell research.

“We should go with the bill that has already passed the House, H.R. 810,” Green said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., was passed by the House of Representatives early last June by a vote of 239 to 194. It permits the federal government to fund research that uses stem cell lines donated by couples who do not plan to use the embryos for reproduction.

Green underscored the necessity of passing H.R. 810, pointing out problems with the existing stem cell lines.

“Not all the lines self-renew very well, and there is limited genetic diversity,” he added.

Laws and executive orders currently prohibit the destruction of human embryos for use in stem cell research.

Green said he was concerned with the Bush administration’s stance on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. So far, Bush’s stance has been that taxpayer dollars should not be spent on stem cell research, which uses embryos destroyed after Aug. 9, 2001. The result, however, has been that federally funded researchers lack access to recently harvested colonies, which may hold more potential.

“The [administration’s policies have] become increasingly more questionable with each day that passes,” Green said. “There are thousands of embryos in freezers that are going to be thrown away.”

Some lawmakers, however, disagree and hope to resist changes to existing policies.

Several proposals seeking to allow alternate forms of stem cell research that would leave existing laws intact have been recommended to the president by conservative opponents to the issue.

“They are thrashing around, trying to find a way out of this mess that the president has made,” Green said. “They made the bet and now they have to live with it and they don’t want to.”

During the hearing, Green was asked to analyze the ethics of some of these proposals, which included using embryos that were dead or not technically human.

“How can you declare an embryo dead,” he asked.

This question is one of the many ethical problems inherent in stem cell research. Green noted that even if an embryo is not developing, it has the potential to develop in the future.

The lack of federal funding has discouraged many research universities from pursuing embryonic stem cell research, Green said, because research institutions are often wary to sponsor stem cell projects — even when they are privately funded — out of fear of losing their public funding.

The bill has been scheduled for a vote expected in the coming months.

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