As the President nears his decision on whether human embryonic stem cell research should be federally funded, Congress continued to debate the issue. This week, a House and Senate subcommittee held hearings to examine the issue.
On July 17, the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources heard from a range of witnesses primarily advocating alternatives to human embryonic stem cell research. Opening the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Mark Souder (R-IN) stated, “Before the U.S. government condones with federal funding research that results in the destruction of living human embryos, we have a moral obligation to explore and exhaust every available ethical alternatives [sic].”
One such alternative involves allowing couples undergoing in vitro fertilization to place their excess embryos for adoption by other couples. The subcommittee heard testimony from two couples who adopted excess embryos, resulting in live births. Both couples testified in opposition to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, noting the promise of embryo adoption. “Thousands more children could be adopted by the roughly two million mothers desperately longing to conceive,” stated Lucinda Borden, mother of twins as a result of embryo adoption.
Marlene Strege, mother of a three-year-old girl, added, “As embryo adoption proliferates in the wake of this controversy, the ‘excess supply’ of embryos will evaporate.”
JoAnn Davidson of the Snowflake Embryo Adoption Program noted that there are an estimated 6.5 to 10 million couples in the United States suffering from infertility. “For these people, child adoption is less attractive, because it does not involve pregnancy, prenatal bonding, or childbirth,” she stated. “In contrast, embryo adoption involves all of these benefits, includes the satisfaction of parenting a waiting child, and is far less expensive than IVF treatments.”
Ms. Davidson also told the subcommittee that “a decision to authorize the federal funding of human embryo destruction is a decision to take the lives of at least 12,600 to 35,000 children who otherwise could have been born and raised by loving adoptive parents.”
Another alternative to embryonic stem cell research involves research on stem cells derived from the blood found in the umbilical cord after birth. Nathan Salley, who was diagnosed with advanced leukemia at the age of 11, received a cord blood transplant at the age of 14. Today, two years later, he is in complete remission. “I am proof that the medical community does not need to destroy life to save it. I am told that the same cord blood stem cells that saved me are likely cures for other life-threatening diseases.”
Dr. David A. Prentice of Indiana State University agreed, saying, “The use of federal funds to support human embryonic stem cell research is illegal, unethical, and unnecessary. Adult and other post-natal stem cells have vast biomedical potential to cure diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart disease, and other degenerative diseases.”
Dr. Gerald Fischbach of Columbia University, and former director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, testified in support of embryonic stem cell research, saying that alternatives are “inadequate.” He noted that of the number of embryos that are made available to other infertile couples for adoption, “less than ten percent will be viable.” He also added, “It is generally believed that stem cells derived from adult tissues do not proliferate as robustly and they do not exhibit the same diversity of offspring as embryonic stem cells do.”
Noting that “breakthroughs cannot be predicted,” Dr. Fischbach stated, “It is unethical to hold back our best effort while one hundred million Americans continue to suffer with rapidly progressive degenerative disorders.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) also testified before the subcommittee in support of embryonic stem cell research. Noting that he is strongly pro-life, Sen. Hatch said, “My…support of embryonic stem cell research is consistent with pro-life and pro-family values,” adding, “I believe that human life begins in the womb, not a petri dish or refrigerator.” He continued, “It is inevitable that in the IVF process, extra embryos are created that will simply not be implanted in the mother’s womb. To me, the morality of the situation dictates that these embryos, which are routinely discarded, be used to improve and extend life.”
Also noting his pro-life voting record, Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) said he would reserve judgment: “Let’s hear all the facts and see if there is a middle ground.”
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) argued that it would be “unethical not to do it [embryonic stem cell research].”
However, Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-VA) argued against the research, saying, “Human embryos are not commodities.”
Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) supported the research, calling on the administration to immediately reverse the ban on federal funding.
On July 18, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education held a hearing to examine embryonic stem cell research. Subcommittee Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) opened the hearing by explaining a bill (S. 723) he co-sponsored with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). The legislation would permit “federally funded scientists to derive human stem cells from embryos under three conditions: the embryos must be obtained from an IVF clinic; the donor must have provided informed consent; and the embryo must no longer be needed for infertility procedures.” Sen. Harkin told witnesses, “We introduced this legislation because we want to save lives and to find cures for some of the most debilitating diseases that affect mankind.”
Sen. Hatch appeared before the subcommittee, as did Sens. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Gordon Smith (R-OR). Sen. Smith echoed the comments of Sen. Hatch. “For me, being pro-life means helping the living as well. So if I err at all on this issue, I choose to err on the side of hope, healing, and health.”
Richard Doerflinger of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops argued against the research. “In our view, forcing U.S. taxpayers to subsidize research that relies on deliberate destruction of human embryos for their stem cells is illegal, immoral and unnecessary.” He added, “This proposal is unnecessary because adult stem cells and other alternatives are already achieving some of the goals for which embryonic stem cells have been proposed, and new clinical uses are being discovered.”
At the hearing, subcommittee member Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) announced his support for embryonic stem cell research. “The issue of whether or not to use stem cells for medical research involves deeply held moral, religious and ethical beliefs as well as scientific and medical considerations. After grappling with the issue scientifically, ethically, and medically, I conclude that both embryonic and adult stem cell research should be federally funded within a carefully regulated, fully transparent framework.”