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Should stem-cell research receive federal funding?

Congress is considering relaxing the rules for funding this controversial research

Embryonic stem cells have the extraordinary ability to develop into any kind of cell or tissue in the body. That's why they have the potential to be used to treat the more than 100 million Americans who suffer from diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, and spinal-cord injuries.

Embryonic stem cells can be derived from the process of in-vitro fertilization, a procedure used to enable infertile couples to have children. The process usually results in extra embryos.

At present, there are an estimated 400,000 such embryos, which are frozen and likely to be discarded.

In fact, the only human embryos used for stem-cell research are those that would otherwise be discarded from in-vitro fertilization clinics.

In August 2001, President Bush made federal funding available for research only on stem-cell lines that existed at that time. The President made a sincere effort to strike an acceptable balance on this issue.

But more than four years later, it is clear that these stem-cell lines are inadequate for the quality of research needed. The time has come to expand federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells so we can continue to make strides toward cures and treatments.

This debate forces us to question our priorities, morals, and ethics. We must choose a path that does not impede scientific progress, that gives us the best chance to help those who may benefit from stem-cell research, and that does so in an ethical fashion.

Senator Arlen Specter
Republican of Pennsylvania

As a practicing physician and two-time cancer survivor, I am deeply committed to finding cures to deadly diseases. But using federal funds to support destructive embryonic stem-cell research would be both unethical and unnecessary.

As a scientist, I believe that supporters of embryonic stem-cell research may be offering the public a false hope. Not a single treatment has been developed from embryonic stem cells. Yet 65 treatments have been developed from stem cells in umbilical-cord blood and adult tissues.

Scientists have recently extracted embryonic stem cells from animal embryos without destroying those embryos in the process (as is usual with embryonic stem-cell research). Congress should first pursue this avenue of research, which offers all of the theoretical benefits, but does not open a Pandora's box of ethical problems.

Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research believe it is ethical to destroy embryos for research because they would be thrown away anyway. This argument sidesteps the critical question of when human life begins and deserves protection under the law. If we say it is acceptable to destroy human life that is unwanted or destined for destruction, then many human lives, such as the handicapped, mentally retarded, or very old, could be endangered.

Embryos are human life with potential, not just potential human life. At the dawn of what will likely be the biotech century, supporting unnecessary and destructive experimentation on human embryos would set us on a dangerous course.

Senator Tom Coburn
Republican of Oklahoma