If you have watched a parent or loved one die of a debilitating and dignity-robbing disease like Alzheimer’s, it’s hard not to feel you have a personal stake in efforts to treat or prevent such diseases.
So any development that promises to advance research is welcome. Democrats in Congress have made federal funding for embryonic stem cell research a priority this year; the measure has already passed the House. All that sounds hopeful.
But so does the news that Georgia’s Sen. Johnny Isakson is pushing legislation this year that will seek another solution to the embryonic stem cell research stalemate.
What the senator proposes involves salvaging rejected eggs from fertility clinics – eggs that are fertilized but malformed and determined by the clinics to be incapable of surviving in the womb and unsuitable for freezing for future use – and making them available for federally-funded research. Such eggs are now thrown away, but still have value for research. Isakson would like to make it possible to use these eggs to establish new lines of stem cells for the kind of research that could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes or even spinal cord injuries.
In 2001, President George Bush banned federal funding for research on any lines of embryonic stem cells other than the 60-odd then in existence – lines scientists say are now degenerating. Since then, only private money has been available, a situation that limits the scope of research and eliminates the kind of scrutiny public finding would bring.
Right now there is not much middle ground on the issue of embryonic stem cell research, and the battle is ongoing.
Proponents see the possibilities for research; opponents believe destroying fertilized eggs is destroying life. At present the opponents are winning. Last summer Bush vetoed a bill – his first veto since taking office – that had passed both houses of Congress and would have permitted federal funding for new lines of stem cell research. His office has said he will veto any similar legislation this year.
So the idea of a plausible solution is a hopeful one, made even moreso by Isakson’s reputation as a skilled lawmaker able to bring opposing sides together.
Isakson believes President Bush was right to veto the bill last summer, which would have allowed viable eggs to be used in research; but he has been interested for some time in finding a solution to the stem cell research dilemma.
The senator sought out UGA Professor Stephen Stice, who is director of the UGA Regenerative Bioscience Center in Athens, in trying to find an answer. It was Stice who explained the possibility of using discarded fertilized eggs, as he has done in his own research.
Whether Isakson can prevail remains to be seen. But his proposal is well worth pursuing. The issue of stem cell research – which at least one poll indicates about two-thirds of all Georgians support – is one that demands open minds and open hearts.
I understand that some elements of embryonic stem cell research may provoke disagreement among thoughtful people. I understand that some have reservations about fertility clinics in general and the in vitro fertilization practices that result in unusable fertilized eggs. But what I don’t understand is why it is better to throw these eggs into a dumpster or haul them away to some biomedical trash heap – which is exactly what is happening now – than it is to allow them to be used for legitimate medical research.
Like many who attempt to inject reason into a highly emotional debate, Isakson will probably catch flack from both sides. Research proponents will be tempted to dismiss the solution as a too-cautious compromise, a second-best measure; opponents are likely to circle the wagons and say, “absolutely not.”
Of course it’s preferable to allow scientists to pursue promising avenues of stem cell research – with the prospect of federal funding for appropriate research conducted with appropriate scrutiny from their peers.
But, with regard to embryonic stem cell research, that may not happen – at least not in the final two years of the Bush Administration. Why not go ahead with Isakson’s proposal while the larger battle rages in Washington? Two years of research using the rejected eggs might very well yield some advances that could benefit a lot of people who don’t have time to wait for the complete victory they seek.
Susan Percy is editor of Georgia Trend. E-mail her at email@example.com