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A chance to change

IN MOVING to lift senseless restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, the Senate is trying to effectively override President Bush’s veto of a similar bill last summer. Once the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 is reconciled with a House version passed in January, Bush will have the opportunity to make amends.

Granted, this president isn’t known for reexamining previous positions. But he ought to make the effort -- not just for the benefit of seriously ill Americans who might benefit from stem cell therapies, but to get out from under an incoherent, impractical and unpopular policy.

Although they dress up their arguments in the language of science, opponents of research using embryonic cells are basically fighting a religious battle. Central to it is the dubious premise that early-stage embryos fertilized in vitro are the moral equivalent of fully formed human beings.

Even if that belief were valid, it is already being violated by in vitro fertilization, a mainstream medical practice that produces thousands of excess embryos a year. If they aren’t destroyed or discarded, the vast majority remain in a deep freeze -- never developing into humans and never helping in lifesaving medical research.

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Bush’s position on stem cell funding is hobbled by its own internal contradictions. His 2001 executive order on the subject didn’t ban all federal money for research, just research using stem cell “lines” created from that point on. Such an arbitrary cutoff undermined Bush’s moral argument, as did his otherwise welcome willingness to allow private research to go forward.

As of now, federal money can be used to study just 78 existing stem cell lines, only 21 of which have proved usable (and even those are contaminated). Federal funding remains crucial, despite initiatives in states including California, where the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, supported by a state bond issue, has awarded $45 million to 72 embryonic stem cell projects. Restrictions from the White House can discourage cooperation between researchers.

Bush’s stem cell “compromise” was bad science and bad policy on the day it was announced, and it hasn’t improved with time. He should thank Congress for the chance to do it all over.


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