By Tom Still

MADISON – In the halls of Congress as well as the Wisconsin Legislature, it is becoming more difficult for the opponents of human embryonic stem cell research to persuade fellow lawmakers that such science is unethical. The fight over stem-cell research is far from over, but public opinion about its relative merits is beginning to carry more weight.

Following an emotional debate on the meaning of life and the promise of science, the House of Representatives voted 238-194 last month to allow federal research on stem cells taken from human embryos. A vote in the Senate could happen later this year. President Bush may well veto the measure if it reaches his desk, but the House vote – supported by 50 Republicans — was nonetheless a rare defeat for the White House.

In Madison last week, a leading Republican state senator tried to push his position that state resources should not be used to support embryonic stem-cell research. However, state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau apparently couldn’t muster enough votes on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee to pass the ban. Then, the committee overwhelmingly rejected a separate attempt to reject funding for the UW-Madison’s Institute for Discovery, a facility where such research could take place.

Anti-stem cell bills could come back outside the budget process this fall, but for now, the Legislature’s most influential joint committee has said “no” to attempts to prevent Wisconsin scientists from following up on their own discoveries.


Why are some federal and state legislators, including many in the Republican Party, standing up to those who have equated human-embryonic stem cell research to “a scientific exploration into the possible benefits of killing human beings”?


For starters, they recognize that such hyperbole need not be true. Yes, it is possible that abuses in stem cell research could result in human embryonic stem cells being created simply for the purpose of research. But that’s not what American researchers are doing.

Human embryonic stem cells are the building blocks for all other cells, tissues, bones and organs in our bodies. They evolve rapidly from conception, and scientists had trouble understanding how they worked until UW-Madison scientist James Thomson and his team found a way to isolate and “immortalize” stem cells in 1998. Using only embryos that would have been discarded by fertility clinics, Thomson and other UW researchers developed a number of stem cell lines that are still being studied today.


Cures are still many years away, but enough work has been done over the past seven years for scientists in Wisconsin and elsewhere to be optimistic about finding treatments and new drug therapies for heart disease, neural disorders, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

While scientists in some nations are using questionable techniques to create cells for research, the leading scientific advisory board in the United States recently released guidelines designed to ensure ethical research. Among other things, the National Academies’ guidelines urge that:


n      Stem cell donors (couples who have created excess embryos at in vitro fertilization clinics, or egg and sperm donors) have provided consent, acknowledging that their embryos may be used to produce stem cells.

n      Donors are not paid.

n      Donors are informed they have the right to withdraw their consent at any point before a stem cell line is derived.

n      Donors are informed that research involving their stem cells may have commercial potential, but they will not have in any financial benefit.

n      Researcher should not ask fertility doctors to create more embryos than necessary for reproductive treatments.

n      Human embryos used for research should not be grown in culture longer than 14 days, the point at which the body axis and central nervous system begin to form.

n      Each institution involved in stem cell research should create an advisory board to oversee the work.


Those guidelines (which are essentially identical to what’s already taking place at UW-Madison) are inspiring confidence among policymakers who fear that practices used in some nations might become the norm here.


It may also explain why recent polls have shown that two-thirds of Americans support human embryonic stem cell research, so long as it takes place under ethical guidelines.

Some people will never support stem-cell research under any conditions. But as ethics and understanding catch up to the science, confidence is building among federal and state lawmakers.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.