Bush's Stem Cell Decision: A No-Win Situation?

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President Bush will announce his decision on stem cell research Thursday evening

Thursday evening, when President Bush announces whether he will support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, he will end months of private contemplation and public debate. The path to this decision has meandered through the esoteric world of cellular and genetic research and has focused unprecedented attention on the tantalizing, controversial (and, as yet, largely theoretical) possibilities for treatments, even cures, for our most dreaded diseases. For the President, this is not an easy call. Whatever decision he makes, Bush is likely to suffer harsh criticism.

A quick review

The center of this storm is microscopic: A stem cell is, in essence, a blank cell, caught early in its development and capable, through manipulation, of becoming any type of cell scientists need. Those who champion research using embryonic stem cells believe new studies could provide critical help for patients suffering from diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to diabetes to Parkinson’s. There is hope, as well, that stem cell research could be used to reverse nerve damage and spinal cord injuries.

Those who oppose the research believe that an embryo is a human life from the moment of fertilization, and that destroying an embryo by extracting stem cells is tantamount to murder. Many of those set against embryonic stem cell research advocate using adult stem cells, but while scientists have had some success using stem cells culled from adults, they’ve found that embryonic stem cells hold particular promise. They are more easily molded, more susceptible to manipulation in the lab.

To capture an embryonic stem cell, scientists must find an embryo, or blastocyst (from umbilical cord tissue, a frozen sample from a fertility clinic, an aborted fetus, or, most controversially, from a cloned specimen) ideally a few days after fertilization. Researchers then extract stem cells from the blastocyst, and, they hope, use those blank slates to create new, potentially curative, cells.

The political quandary

The potentially explosive political ramifications of such a choice were not lost on Bush’s predecessor. Late in his term, faced with the stem cell conundrum, President Clinton managed to make a decision without actually deciding anything. He declared that federal funding would be provided for research, as long as that funding did not go towards actually extricating the stem cells from the embryos. That left researchers scrambling to find private firms willing to provide cells for federally funded projects.

At the moment, federally funded stem cell research is at a standstill; Bush’s announcement could have several effects. It will either jump-start a stalled quest, establish careful conditions for scientific procedures, or bring the entire debate to a screeching halt.

What Bush could do

The President has more than two options available to him, and some close to the administration have hinted he may shoot for something resembling a compromise between two diametrically opposing points of view.

Unconditional funding: The most scientifically adventurous decision Bush could make, this also seems the least likely. This would provide federal funding for all avenues of stem cell research, embryonic and adult, with no conditions or strings attached.

Funding with certain conditions: Most agree this is the most attractive path for Bush; researchers would be permitted to continue research on stem cells gathered from "surplus" embryos, those fertility center blastocysts that would be discarded anyway. Funding limitations would not permit the creation of embryos for the sole purpose of harvesting stem cells; Bush would also encourage more extensive research into the usefulness of adult stem cells.

No funding: An unlikely, but conceivable path for the President would see the end of all federal funding for any kind of embryonic stem cell research. Bush would call for scientists to use adult cells only. Any further research on embryonic cells would fall to privately funded studies.

It’s an unenviable choice any way you look at it, and Bush has reportedly "struggled" with his decision. At last, however, he has arrived at a conclusion — now he just needs to brace for the reaction.