By Tom Still

MADISON – Are human embryonic stem cells Democratic or Republican?

As silly as that question is, it appears to be at the core of one of the more lamentable “wedge issues” of the 2004 presidential campaign. Both political parties will deserve some blame if stem cell science takes a back seat to stem cell politics.

If you followed the Democratic National Convention a few weeks ago, you may have concluded that John Kerry pioneered stem cell research and John Edwards was the first therapeutic patient. Speaker after speaker, including Ron Reagan, the decidedly non-Republican son of the late Republican president, pounded away on the theme that George W. Bush had all but shut down the laboratories of the nation’s stem cell scientists.

While there are good reasons to be critical of Bush’s decisions regarding federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, the facts surrounding what has happened over the last three years is a bit more complicated – and not easily explained in 30-second attack ads that polarize rather than educate.

Embryonic stem cells are the body’s core cells. They have the ability to grow into many types of cells, including those that make up the liver, the heart and the pancreas, for example. Scientists believe stem cells may unlock treatments or cures for some of mankind’s worst diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes or, down the line, Alzheimer’s. Cures aren’t imminent, but the work of researchers such as UW-Madison Professor James Thomson is promising.

Embryonic stem cell research is controversial because extracting the cells requires the destruction of very small days-old embryos. Those embryos come from fertilized eggs that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics, where childless couples undergo in vitro fertilization. Unless those eggs are implanted in the womb of a woman, however, they cannot grow to become a human being.

In August 2001, President Bush bowed to the ethical concerns of some pro-life supporters when he said federal dollars could only be used to conduct research on 78 existing stem cell lines. It has since turned out that many of those lines are unavailable or unfit for laboratory work, and the race is on to grow new lines that can be used by scientists.

The Bush decision hasn’t eliminated funding for embryonic stem cell research (in fact, $24.8 million was spent in fiscal year 2003), but it has curtailed what otherwise might have been invested had pre-Bush policies remained in place. Health and Human Secretary Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor, has quietly but persistently tested the limits of the Bush order by allowing the National Institutes of Health to begin work on a National Embryonic Stem Cell Bank as well as three Centers for Excellence for Translational Stem Cell Research. Still, far more federal dollars are being invested in adult stem cell research ($190.7 million by the NIH in fiscal 2003) than embryonic stem cell research.

Federal dollars are the backbone of academic research and development in the United States; without them, industry and other private funds are hard to come by.

Many Republicans remain unhappy with Bush’s decision, even some who would describe themselves as pro-life. These are people who have reviewed the science and realized there are important ethical distinctions between aborting a baby and extracting a cell from a fertilized embryo that cannot live and will otherwise be tossed away. They want the nation’s research efforts into killer diseases to be robust, not handcuffed.

Unfortunately, some of those Republicans are now circling the wagons as the Democrats lay claim to the issue as their exclusive property. These Republicans are less willing to voice their disagreement with Bush now because stem cell research has become a campaign wedge, separating people into partisan camps from which there is no escape before November.

Meanwhile, Bush himself is being backed into a corner. If he’s re-elected, will he be able to rethink current federal funding policies without appearing to have caved into Democratic demands?

The nation needs a real debate over the future of human embryonic stem cell research. Sadly, it won’t take place during this campaign season.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.