South Korea recently announced a major advance when it reported that scientists had created embryonic stem cells that genetically match those of injured or sick people. And, using government funding, it was faster and much easier than scientists elsewhere thought possible.
Where is government funding in the United States? The National Institutes of Health, which oversees $28.6 billion in annual spending, has distributed just $54 million for stem cell research over the last four years on cells derived from embryos produced before Aug. 9, 2001.
That's why Californians overwhelmingly passed the $3 billion Institute of Regenerative Medicine initiative last year. Those bonds will fund stem cell research in the state for 10 years.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney vetoed a bill Friday that would expand embryonic stem cell research, but the measure has more than enough support in the Legislature to override the veto. Romney said he vetoed the bill because it included a provision allowing therapeutic cloning. The Legislature is expected to override to keep the state's biotech industry from fleeing to California.
Thursday, the Connecticut state Senate approved spending $100 million over 10 years to fund research. The bill goes to the House. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell said she would be "proud to sign the bill when it reaches my desk."
Given current federal limitations on stem cell research and funding, researchers are being inhibited to a point where we're falling behind stem cell exploration elsewhere.
And, a CBS News poll shows that Bush is at odds with most Americans. Fifty-eight percent approve of medical research using embryonic stem cells, 31 percent disapprove. Asked whether federally funded research should be expanded, 37 percent said it should, 17 percent said existing support was "sufficient."
Advocates say there are 400,000 frozen embryos for use in the in vitro fertilization process. Some couples choose to preserve the frozen embryos for the future. Others prefer to eventually discard them, tossing out a resource that research advocates say could be used to help develop renewable replacement cells to treat Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, strokes and heart disease.
The House last week passed a bill that would increase federal funding for stem cell research. California's Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a critic of administration inaction, has introduced a bill to relax restrictions.
But Bush vows to veto any bill that comes to his desk. This could set up an interesting battle on Capitol Hill. The president has not used the veto since taking office. But he said recently, "I worry about a world in which cloning becomes acceptable," and he would never allow "federal taxpayer money to promote science that destroys life in order to save life."
Opposition has grown even among Republicans. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., a longtime opponent of abortion, joined 49 other Republicans to defy the White House and back a measure that passed the House, 238-194. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, supports the bill because research might help fight the diabetes that killed his father at 71 and the liver cancer that killed his brother at 44.
This is a very personal issue for Americans. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., cited his battle against Hodgkin's disease as a medical condition that could benefit from stem cell research. He predicts the Senate will pass the measure if it comes to a vote and has enough votes to override a Bush veto.
GOP stalwart Orrin Hatch of Utah joined two other Republican senators and three Democrats who wrote Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist requesting a vote. So far, Frist shows no sign of doing so.
It's time to bring the stem cell issue to a head and force Bush to veto or accept a stronger stem cell bill. Vetoing it could be a very unpopular move.
Bush's stance encourages researchers in other nations to initiate and accelerate research. It has already driven some of our best medical researchers overseas. Stem cell research is an issue that transcends pro-life ideology.