Scientists and ethicists are anticipating more federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research after President Bush leaves office next year.
None of the presidential candidates are as strict as Bush, who has used an executive order to keep embryonic research from receiving federal money. Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain each voted last year for an unsuccessful bill that would have overturned that order.
But while the Democratic candidates have been firm in their support of embryonic stem-cell research, McCain has not.
"We don't know what McCain will do," said Nigel Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future. "He signed on to efforts to overturn the President's policy with a heavy heart and a lot of thought. He's had a totally prolife voting record."
Even if the future President does loosen up federal funds, experts say it probably will not be a boon for embryonic stem-cell research.
"There is already an enormous amount of private and state funding for it," said science policy analyst Michelle Kirtley, a staff member of Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.). "They already have access to significantly more money than NIH [the National Institutes of Health] would grant, even if the funding restrictions were completely lifted. I don't see funding making a huge amount of difference."
In addition, scientists are focusing on alternatives to embryonic research, like the discovery that adult cells can be reprogrammed to be as flexible as embryonic cells. "Since November more than 100 different stem cell lines have been developed this way," Kirtley said. "[Scientists] know the rules are likely to be more lax soon, so I don't think they'd be jumping on this other reprogramming bandwagon if they thought the future was entirely with embryonic stem cells."
Alternative research methods and a less polarizing President will likely move the stem-cell debate off the front pages, Cameron said. "If the [current] President weren't so unpopular, this issue would've gone away. You'll have a fresh game to play. I'm hoping it will focus on cloning."
Therapeutic cloning involves removing the DNA from an embryo and replacing it with DNA taken from the cell of an individual. Stem cells extracted from the resulting embryo could then be used, theoretically, to grow perfectly matched tissue or replacement organs.
Clinton told The New York Times last fall that she believed therapeutic cloning fell "within the ethical framework" that would guide her policy decisions. Obama is also thought to support such cloning, though he has not spoken publicly about it. McCain, however, supports a bill that would forbid all forms of cloning for any purpose.
"Our Christian view has to be that it is never acceptable to create human life in order to destroy it," said Robert George, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. "It's certainly a grave violation against justice, not just for the unborn but our right as citizens." If a cloning bill were to pass, he said, Christians would be implicated in the killing of life by paying for it with their taxes.
Evangelicals are facing only the tip of the iceberg of moral questions in stem-cell research, said William Hurlbut, another member of the President's Council on Bioethics. Each generation will face a new and difficult ethical dilemma, he said, which is why it's important to get this one right.
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