Tuesday, May 18, 2004

NIH Stem Cell Policy Shift(s)?

On 5/10/2004, The Corpus Callosum noted a report that Nancy Reagan had spoken out in favor of expanded research using stem cells.  I don't know what it was that led me to post that; of all the news that day, it seemed noteworthy for some reason.  Now comes a report  in the WaPo that the director of NIH,  Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, (yes, that  Dr. Zerhouni -- see the post from yesterday) has written a letter to the US House of Representatives reflecting the President's stem cell policy.  A PDF of the letter is here.  In this post, I describe the possible policy shift that the letter may signal, and point out two things that the author of the article apparently missed. 

The WaPo reported noted that most of what is in the letter is a rehash of prior policy.  But one sentence stands out:

Bush's Stem Cell Policy Reiterated, but Some See Shift
NIH Director's Letter to Lawmakers Acknowledges That Science Could Benefit From Added Cell Lines

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A18 

[...] "And although it is fair to say that from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research, the president's position is still predicated on his belief that taxpayer funds should not 'sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.' " [...]

The key phrase is: "it is fair to say that from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research."

This may signal a policy shift.  Previously, the Administration tried to argue that the cell lines that are already available are sufficient for research purposes.  Although hardly anyone who has ever set foot in an actual laboratory agreed with this, the President used this argument to bolster his other argument, which is the ethical one.  That is, he expressed the opinion that it is improper to destroy human embryos that have the potential -- however theoretical that potential may be -- to some day give rise to human life. 

Forensic experts might recognize this as a classic "double defense:"  Commonly, a person who is angling for an insanity defense will say, in essence: 'I didn't do the crime, and even if I did, I was crazy at the time.'  Only his version is: 'It's unethical to generate more cell lines using a method that destroys embryos, but even if it isn't unethical, it isn't scientifically necessary.'

The potential significance of the sentence was amplified in an interview:

"Obviously it's a very politically crafted sentence," said Tony Mazzaschi, an associate vice president at the Association of American Medical Colleges. "You can just imagine what it took to get that in. I do see some movement here."

Mr. Weiss thinks that the important policy shift is Bush's movement away from the scientific argument.  Personally, I think there is a more important shift signaled by this letter.  Mr. Bush has been widely, persistently criticized for his misrepresentation of science to the public.  Perhaps he is finally getting the message.   In this election year, this is a fight he doesn't have to be in.  Alter all, not only is this a battle that he does not have to fight, but even if he did, he couldn't win it anyway. 

There is one more point I would like to make.  Six months ago, we would have read a letter from the director of NIH and we would have taken it at face value.  Now, given the events I posted about yesterday, we have to wonder: "who stands to make a profit off of this?"

Oh, I guess there is another point here.  The WaPo article stated that Dr. Zerhouni wrote the letter at the request of President Bush, and that the White House vetted the letter before it was released.  Notice the statement: "human embryos that have at least the potential for life. "

Now think about this for a moment.  Think for another moment.  Is he saying that embryos, which "have at least the potential for life," are not yet actually alive???

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