Legal, political struggles over human embryonic stem cell research continues

By BRADLEY J. FIKES North County Times | Posted: Sunday, October 9, 2011 12:00 am

Californians decisively endorsed human embryonic stem cell research in 2004, when 59 percent of voters approved spending $3 billion to support stem cell science. But nationwide, the controversy rages on, said speakers at last week's World Stem Cell Summit, attended by several hundred researchers and others interested in stem cell research.

What in California seems like a settled matter remains very much up for debate elsewhere, scientists and patient advocates said at the meeting, held Monday through Wednesday in Pasadena.

The issues remain the same: Supporters of the research say these cells hold the potential for curing diseases and injuries now untreatable. Opponents say human embryonic stem cell research is wrong, because human embryos are killed to get the cells. Opponents also say other forms of stem cells, not taken from human embryos, have been shown to be effective, while not a single embryonic stem cell treatment has been approved. Supporters reply that embryonic stem cell science is far younger than that of most other stem cell types.

What has changed is the federal government's position, which has strengthened support of embryonic stem cell research since Barack Obama became president in 2009. However, that support is vulnerable because of a strategic error by President Obama and congressional Democrats, said Russell Korobkin, a professor of law at UCLA School of Law.

Insecure victory

In August 2001, President George W. Bush approved federal funding of human embryonic stem research. But controversially, he restricted federal funding to cells that had already been grown in the lab. Cell lines produced after that date were ineligible for federal funding. Researchers objected on the grounds that more experimentation was needed to find the best cells for treatment.

While Obama reversed most of the restrictions imposed by his predecessor, they can be re-imposed by the next president, said Korobkin. The reason is that Obama acted on his own, by issuing an executive order.

A law passed by Congress would have provided greater protection, because it could not be reversed by the president on his own, Korobkin said. Such a law, called the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, was passed when Bush was president, who vetoed it.

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